The novel cure: Loss of face

Literary prescriptions for modern ailments

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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Face, loss of

Cure: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Is there anything worse than losing face, especially if you're a teen? To be scorned or mocked by one's peers is tantamount to being cast out from the group. In evolutionary terms, losing face can mean failure to survive.

When 11-year-old Harri Opoku comes to live in Peckham from Ghana, he enters a world in which pretty much anything he does is doomed to be wrong. His clothes are secondhand; and, knowing his Brixton market trainers won't cut the mustard, he draws Adidas stripes on them with a marker pen. It doesn't work. His classmates jeer at him, laugh at his trainers, and mimic his accent. "Do you have happiness?" they ask him. "Yes," he replies. "Do you have a penis?" they guffaw.

The family live on the ninth floor of an inner-city block, and Harri spends a lot of time talking to a pigeon. The "rat with wings" listens to his questions, and seems to understand his confusion.

When a boy from Harri's neighbourhood is knifed to death, his blood staining the stairwell of their estate and his trainers left hanging on the railings to tempt the circling, predatory boys, the pigeon gives Harri the confidence to find out what really happened. His detective work brings him terrifyingly close to boys with a killer attitude. His only salvation is his speed. Because Harri's trainers might not be the right brand, but he can still run faster than anyone else in year seven.

Harri's irresistible voice and his heartbreaking experiences show that worse things do happen in life than losing face. When the world shrinks to the size of your peer group and all you can think of is where you come in the pecking order, this novel will hoist you up and give you that broader perspective.

'The Novel Cure, An A-Z of Literary Remedies' (Canongate, £17.99);