I feel like I should preface this by apologising for giving it 3/5 on Goodreads. I’ve read a lot of very good, extremely enjoyable books this year, perhaps partly because I vet my choices quite closely and so have ended up awarding lots of 4 or 5 out of 5’s over there.? And Pigeon English WAS good, very good in fact and well deserving of its awards and acolades so far.
The book is written from the point of view of Year 7 Harri, a recently arrived new resident of London who previously lived in Ghana. He’s adapting to a new life, missing his old one (though he is relentlessly positive) and missing his Papa and sister who have not yet come over. His mother is a midwife working hard to pay off a dubious financial arrangement which got them here, his sister is his ally but also struggling to cope with the pressures of teen life in inner-city London. Their relationship is touching in the extreme, perhaps the most identifiable element of the story; they alternately? support each other and try to sit on one anothers head when they drive each other mad. As Lydia gets sucked into gangland secrets, Harri skates along the side of them; he knows that bad things happen, the story opens with him seeing the body of a young friend of his who has become a stabbing fatality, but he has yet to work out that it is not all a game.
The best of this book is the? use of language between the boys Harri is friends with and the portrayal of tower block, inner city life among warring groups who make fights and enemies for something to do. there is no clear criminal activity at fault, no obvious drugs, nothing more than petty theft; what happens is very much the result of boredom, small lives without enough meaning or interest and environments where anything good gets destroyed. Harri is lovely; even when he misbehaves, you just want to whip him away to a place where is soul will be safe, he is likeable and genuine and a proper hero of the story, a champion who knows what is right but is young enough to be swept along on the edges of the politics of where he has found himself. When he gave his sister her birthday present I could have wept for them both; it was a powerful reminder of how innocent children stay even when bad things are happening and how very wrong indeed things have gone when children stop behaving with a moral compass. And I thought the game he and his friend played, investigating the death of the boy, was very clever. You watch him dance ever closer to the truth, knowing he’s stepping on the toes of danger and also knowing that he doesn’t see it – neither of them are old enough to see that their game is a threat to the people around them.
Perhaps that last point made the book hardest for me. I read it when the riots were happening and it was just too painful an illustration of the whys of that. The riots were so impossibly sad, it was so grim to watch kids no older than my eldest two behaving so thuggishly and this book is similarly difficult to read, if like me you are a lucky middle classed person with children who might have had traumas, but are not broken by them. The reason for that lost point was that I didn’t really enjoy it for that very reason; it just hurt a bit too much to face up to that reality. It was a good read certainly, interesting, thought provoking and well written (although I think the criticism I have read that it is rather ‘self-conscious’ is also a fair one) but a book with such painful subject matter is hard to ‘enjoy’. But I recommend it – and if like me you have a teen who has been interested and thoughtful about recent new stories of riots and stabbings, then I think you could hand it on to them too. But watch out for the ending – it will make you cry.
Read as the August LoveABook reading group book.