Tuesday, August 2, 2011

book review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon EnglishThe backstory: Pigeon English was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

The basics: Harri, the 11-year-old narrator, is a Ghanan immigrant living in a housing project in London with his mother and sister. When a boy a little older than Harri is murdered, he finds himself taking up the investigation CSI-style.

My thoughts: Despite a strong premise, Pigeon English never really took off for me. The biggest hindrance was Harri's stilted narration. While I appreciated the point-of-view of an 11-year-old, I found it limiting rather than illuminating. Harri tells his story boastfully and assumed the reader is ignorant, as he often addresses the reader directly through parentheses. While these parenthetical statements were sometimes illuminating, it limited the authenticity for me. For some inexplicable reason, each time Harri used "Asweh," which was frequently, I heard Cartman from South Park as Harri. It drove be a little bit crazy.

I did, however, enjoy the way Harri differentiated dialogue in the narrative:

"Me: 'You don't know what you're talking about, you weren't even there. He didn't even front anybody, the killer just wanted his Chicken Joe's.'
Miquita: 'Whatever. You don't know shit, you're just a kid.'"

Given the unique point-of-view of Harri as the narrator, it was nice to see conversations flesh out as dialogue.

In some ways, Pigeon English reminded me of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao(my review). While I enjoyed the cultural vernacular in Oscar Wao, I was less enthused with it in Pigeon English. The two are quite different novels, but I think some fans of Oscar will delight in Pigeon English. 

I think the biggest problem I had with Pigeon English was its flippancy. It was often crass and vulgar, as 11-year-old boys certainly are. While solving a murder, it came off as neither serious nor funny. Overall, it was just odd, and I couldn't shake the feeling that I just didn't get it.

Favorite passage: "Grownups love sad news, it gives them something special to pray for. That's why the news is always sad."

The verdict: While I appreciate the intention of Kelman's novel, it simply didn't work for me as a reader. The disparate elements of murder mystery, crude humor and the inner workings of an eleven-year-old boy felt lacking. The colloquial language of Harri made it a slower read for me, but there wasn't a corresponding depth to make it seem worthwhile.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: July 19, 2011
Source: publisher, via NetGalley

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  1. I have only just started this and I have to admit the narration is taking some getting used to, almost like its not authentic. I will crack on with it though and see how it goes.

  2. I was wondering about this one. Yours is the first review I've read; sorry is was somewhat disappointing.

  3. For such a publicized book, I see a lot of "meh" reviews. It's in my wishlist, but not really a priority.

  4. I don't really enjoy colloquial language in the books I read, and often find it distracting, so I am not sure if this book is for me. It sounds like you had some pretty big niggles with it as well. I think that this will probably be a book that I avoid.

  5. Hm, I'll probably pass on this. I wasn't totally grabbed by the premise and yours is one of a handful of lukewarm reviews I've seen.

  6. I agree with everything you write - it was such a good premise, but it had several bizarre elements and it didn't work as a novel. I've no idea how it ended up on the Booker list over some of the amazing books I've read recently.

  7. That's disappointing because it sounded good. I had the netgalley book at one point but never got to it so I'll probably just delete that one.

  8. Initially, I considered reading this one, but then I changed my mind. I am starting to think I made the right choice! The reviews of this one don't seem to be that great.

  9. Hmm, I do try to get through as much of the longlist as possible but this one seems like it might be a bit of a long haul for me.

  10. From what you've included here, it doesn't sound like a book I'd like, but I'd probably appreciate in the end. I felt the same way with "C" by McCarthy.


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