"Who'd chook a boy just to get his Chicken Joe's?" asks Harri Opuko, an 11-year-old from Ghana new to London. Harri watches with friends as police set up a crime scene on a street in the slums where his classmate has been murdered for his dinner.
"Pigeon English" is what the late Charles A. Brady, professor of English at Canisius College, used to call a "coming-of-age" novel, in the manner of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations."
Harri Opuko is the genre's latest protagonist. He acquires experience at the expense of a loss of innocence. In a bit of a twist, "Pigeon English" is also a detective story wherein Harri and his friend Dean look for clues in the filthy streets and bars to find the killer of his school chum.
"Pigeon English" author Stephen Kelman comes out of the slum experience in England. He says he saw a youngster knifed to death in one of the housing estates a decade ago.
As a result, he says he wanted to write something that would help England's poor and blighted children move beyond violence.
Explaining, Kelman writes, "Harri, my narrator -- learning the rules of the playground, making friends and enemies, exploring the boundaries of adulthood -- just gets on with the business of living, and he does this with an exuberance that defies the darkness of the world around him." The novel's use of multiple languages' slang makes "Pigeon English" something of a phenomenon.
Of course, "pidgin English" is a phrase that signifies the simplified use of English by people who have different primary languages. When this kind of language is used for 288 pages, it is a conceit hard to sustain. One can be interested in the idea, even admire it, but it becomes a chore to process after a time.
If you are a newcomer to England, however, you can see the utility of "pidgin English," as Harry observes: "In England there's a hell of different words for everything. It's for if you forget one, there's always another one left over -- Gay and dumb and lame mean all the same. P--- and slash and tinkle mean all the same (the same as greet the chief)," he confides.
My favorite: Anything that takes a long time is called "donkey hours."
Another overlay of the meaning of "pidgin" courts confusion. It is Harri's semi-pet pigeon that protects him. The pigeon speaks to the reader in italics at the beginning of some chapters, saying things like this: "I woke up when the boy did, flew straight over through the bluster and the branches we live and breathe within the boundaries of our charges; we reach out for them when the bridge between them and their god is blocked."
The attempt to shoehorn more significance into a narrative heavy with "relevance" risks falling flat. Harri's protector, his pigeon, speaks to him again at the end of the book saying, "Hold on, I'm coming. Hold on."
The reader can guess from the "hold on" message that Harri's in trouble. He's got some evidence to give to the police. The murderer, a brutal older student nicknamed "X-fire," aka Jermaine Bent, knows that Harri is on to him. "X-fire" follows Harri around the corner of a building in the tenements, and into a corner near the stairs.
I'll stop there, except to say that I will never rely on a pigeon in a pinch.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of contemporary British fiction.
By Stephen Kelman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt288 pages, $24