A boy is killed outside the London projects where Harrison Opuku, himself a boy of just 11, lives. A Ghanaian native who has emigrated to England with his mother and older sister, Harrison is the man of the house, as his father and youngest sister remained back home. When the book opens, an older boy – whom Harrison admired, after the boy stuck up for him – lies dead in the street, knifed in front of a chicken shop. Harri and his friend Dean decide to solve the murder, after Harri spies someone removing what looks like a knife from beneath a nearby balcony.
The book tells the story in Harri’s 11-year-old voice, and the darkness and violence that surrounds him draw a deeper shadow. Harri’s buoyancy – aided by Kelman’s use of immigrant slang – makes the criminals circling him appear even more dangerous. But the voice also proves to be the novelist’s greatest challenge. When Harrison says something like, ‘I don’t have a favourite raindrop, they’re all as good as each other. They’re all the best. That’s what I think anyway,’ it feels like a poor imitation of a child’s stream of consciousness, and often a feint at the profundity of the wunderkind.
At its best, Pigeon English is a fascinating look at a culture pushed to the margins by a nation’s economic and empathic indifference. But the baggy plot – the ‘mystery’ is there to simply wrap the rest of the story around – is both the result of an 11-year-old’s digressive storytelling style and Kelman’s lack of commitment to the story he set up.