Ghana make you laugh and cry

U.K. immigrant experience touching and troubling


Stephen Kelman

Anansi 288 pp.

For an author’s words to instill both a sense of optimism and dread takes talent. To create a character who is so instantly endearing and believable as Harrison the protagonist in Pigeon English is remarkable.

Author Stephen Kelman presents a realistic and charming account of a few months in the life of an 11-year-old immigrant from Ghana living in an underprivileged and particularly rough area of London with his mother and sister. Harri is the man of the house until the family can afford to bring his father grandmother and baby sister over from Ghana and although he is exposed daily to the violence and corruption of the neighbourhood he manages to maintain his childhood wonder and sense of innocence in the midst of very grown-up chaos. He has many questions — why does his aunt travel so much and why would she need to burn off her fingerprints? Why does Julius her aunt’s boyfriend carry around a baseball bat that he calls “The Enforcer”? And why does his mother give money to Julius weekly? These questions do get answered and sadly those answers seem totally acceptable in this new country.

Harri’s life has just been impacted by the stabbing death of a boy from his school. The police are searching for witnesses and clues and Harri being a regular kid with a vivid imagination and curiosity is determined to solve the case before the police and searches for clues with his friend Dean. Sadly due to the circles that both Harri and his older sister Lydia run in the clues aren’t hard to find and it isn’t long before he gets in deeper than his innocent 11 years can handle or anticipate.

The juxtaposition of both the harsh reality of the violence facing the community in which Harri and his family live and the sweet and oftentimes funny way that Harri as a young boy thinks of what is going around him is heart-wrenching. We see a child who is enamoured with the simple things in life — a pigeon that lands on his balcony hearing his baby sister say his name and developing a schoolboy crush — and who is also struggling to get by in a world of bad influences and crime. Throughout the book you are rooting for Harri to remain innocent and good — optimistic that between the gangs at school his aunt’s criminal boyfriend and the overall social climate of this part the U.K. Harri can fend off the negative influences — all the while dreading that things will go horribly wrong for him.

Kelman has written a haunting thought-provoking novel that offers a glimpse into how difficult it must be to live in this sort of environment — an environment that is becoming more and more prevalent in big cities worldwide. Pigeon English is an unforgettable book that will make you both laugh and cry.