Stephen Kelman's first novel Pigeon English was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. As told in his interview at the back of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition, Kelman drew on his experiences as a child and bases his characters on people he knew. He believes that being aware of your surroundings helps you grow authentic stories.
Like most writers, Kelman began as a reader. His favorite book was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and, indeed, 11-year-old Harrison Opoku, the lead character in Pigeon English, is Sawyer-eqsue. Harri and Sawyer have the same tenacity and sense of justice and are both adventurous young men trying to push the boundaries of the lives their guardians prescribed for them. They both have wild imaginations and believe that with righteousness and integrity, they can change the world.
Pigeon English is a coming-of-age novel the likes of Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye, but one for the poor, deprived, and destitute children in the United Kingdom who have never before been given a voice. For these children, gang violence and crime are normalcy. Kelman draws on his own experiences, growing up in housing developments in Luton, England. His intent is to show the other side of theses children's lives - to show that it was not all negative, despite the ignorance of the situation by adults and those in power.
Written in Harri's Ghanaian/English slang, Pigeon English tells his story, navigating the city and trying to make sense of the new world around him. But although the story is written from the point of view of an 11-year-old, there are universal concepts that make the story undoubtedly 'adult.' Harri is forced to consider the meaning of life and the reasons why we are put on earth, and he confronts the ethics of what is truly right and wrong, despite what he is told by his mother and his classmates.
Not only is Harri coming of age throughout the course of the novel, but he is simultaneously trying to learn about this new culture that he is thrown into. He is investigating a murder while learning that "gay," "dumb," and "lame" all mean the same thing in his elementary school. And in his mind, it is all of equal importance. It's a world where children compete at everything and what brand of sneakers you wear tells a story.
Sporadically placed throughout the story are italicized paragraphs in the voice of the pigeon outside Harri's apartment, which is constantly watching over him and constantly a voice of reason, proving that Harri is not ever truly alone. Indeed, when the story comes to an end, you are forced to wonder about the role of the pigeon and what he is meant to represent. The title itself is a play on "pidgin English," that resultant slang of two groups who do not speak the same language. When reflecting on the novel, we are also asked to consider: who are these two groups who do not see eye-to-eye and what is the universal language that comes of this?
Pigeon English is an excellent first novel and puts Stephen Kelman on the list of authors to be watched. His writing is unconventional in that it is not only narrated by a child, but by a bilingual child. Moreover, he gives voice to a pigeon. But it works. In doing so, he pushes readers to consider deeper meanings of life and draws awareness to those who were previously unrecognized.
Kelman's next novel, release date to be determined, is about an Indian man who sets various world records and is part-biography, part-fiction.