Ios paperback review: Pigeon English, By Stephen Kelman

Setting the patois among the pigeons

Pigeon English is a reverse crossover novel – not a children's novel which turned out to be popular with adults with a taste for fantasy and nostalgia, but an adult novel which turned out to speak to kids too.

First published in 2011 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it's now been issued by Bloomsbury as a "Parental Advisory" novel for teenagers. They will find much to like. It's the first-person story of 11-year-old Harri Opoku, an immigrant from Ghana, living on a rough London council estate. It begins with the fatal stabbing of one of Harri's friends, and follows his attempts to solve the crime, aided by his mate Dean, along with his curious – and often comical – reflections on life, gangs, pigeons, sex, girls, trainers, England and the dodgy characters who live on his estate.

Kelman has captured that strange time when a child is on the cusp of puberty; both knowing and innocent, observant and naive. Harri's language is a rich stew of black London street slang, Standard English and Ghanaian expressions (while reading this I kept wanting to say "Advise yourself" to people I disagreed with).

The story was inspired by the death in November 2000 of Damilola Taylor, and, while it's a sad – indeed tragic – story (don't look for a happy ending here), it is full of life and energy, and is often very funny. It reminded me, by a curious coincidence, of another brilliant novel for adults about childhood by another author with the same surname: James Kelman's Kieron Smith, Boy.

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