Sunday, October 16, 2011

Not Child's Play

This appeared in today's DNA.


What is it about child narrators that Man Booker Prize judges can’t resist? Off the top of one’s head, one can recall Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (winner, 1993), DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little (winner, 2003), Emma Donoghue’s Room (shortlisted, 2010) David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (longlisted, 2006) and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (longlisted, 2003). Now, there’s Stephen Kelman’s debut novel, Pigeon English, on this year’s shortlist at the time of writing.

The 11-year-old protagonist of this novel is portrayed as endearingly innocent; indeed, there’s little that is arch and precocious in his utterances. An example of the sort of style that Kelman adopts for his narrator’s consciousness comes early on: "My jumper's blue. My uniform's better. The only bad thing about it is the tie, it's too scratchy. I hate it when they're scratchy like that”. This is the sort of thing it’s very easy to like; equally, it can annoy with its faux-naif posturing. And there’s a lot of this in Pigeon English.

It’s the voice of Harrison Okupu, recently re-located from Ghana with his mother and elder sister to one of London’s poorer housing estates. (His father and infant sister remain in Africa, planning to join the rest of the family as soon as they can.) Harrison is a quick study, picking up the ways and language of his schoolmates easily enough. We hear much of their schoolyard games – in a sign of the times, one of their pastimes is called “suicide bomber”. Casual delinquencies, with knives, gang initiations and petty theft, are very much a part of the daily routines of some of those in his ken. 

With wide-eyed naiveté, Harrison also conveys his impressions of new experiences such as travelling on the tube. When he isn’t obsessing over whether he’s wearing the right kind of sneakers, he muses on the differences between his homeland and England, from the way barbers behave to the way traffic does. His Ghanaian backdrop, then, serves the important function of establishing him as a stranger in a strange land. This is a report from the inner city by an insider with an outsider’s point of view.

When a boy is stabbed to death outside a fast-food restaurant, Harrison, with some of his mates, decides to play amateur detective to bring the miscreant to book. With this as the plot device, Kelman has him keeping tabs on other boys, as well as sparring with his sister and her mates, acquiring a girlfriend of sorts and gradually becoming more attuned to the ways of the world in which he finds himself. Death and dying are very much on his mind, serving both as a foreshadowing of the future as well as a reflection of his environment.

Harrison’s predicament is one that elicits affection, not to mention compassion. However, the tone of voice employed has many repetitive simplicities and overstated pieties, and these can grate after a while. “I saw a bird nest in the tree,” he informs us. “It was very sad. The birds all fell out when the tree came down.” Then again: “Do you know what's a superhero? They're special people who protect you. They have magic powers. They use them to fight the bad men. They're very great”. The use of schoolboy argot, too, is overdone, with words such as “hutious”, “bo-styles” and “dope-fine” appearing on almost every page.

Curiously enough, there’s also the voice of a pigeon that butts in from time to time. This winged creature, roosting on the balcony of Harrison’s house, is given to gnomic, mock-prophetic pronouncements such as “I do know the shape of a mother's grief”.  As a device to incorporate another minority voice, this comes across as unnecessary.

Immersing oneself in a child’s point of view can be a rewarding experience for the way in which it brings to life the gap between what is seen and what is understood. Despite being affecting in parts, and revelatory of the lives of children in violence-prone neighbourhoods, Pigeon English is only partially successful in this regard.     

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I couldn't see what all that fuss was about.