The narrator in Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is one of those characters whose voice has so much texture that, asweh, I could hear it as clearly as if were there—on the balcony of Harri’s 9th-floor bare-boned flat in London’s project housing, eavesdropping on his very thoughts. In my mind, I see him so clearly—on his knees, working in quiet secret to lay out an irresistible trail of flour to lure a pigeon near.
The boy’s voice is so clearly his own that I’m sure he must be real. And it comes down to so much more than masterful use of dialect and idiosyncratic vocabulary and turn of phrase. A neighborhood boy is killed, a confused pigeon traps himself in Harri’s flat, a murder weapon is stashed, a man at a bar gives some drunken advice. All of this is brilliantly filtered through the innocence and imagination of an 11-year-old boy whose schema for making sense of life determines what he sees and what he does not. Importantly, Harri’s thoughts reveal more to us than he would ever even know. And, asweh, he broke my heart and made me laugh at the same time on multiple occasions. It wasn’t even fair.
X-Fire wouldn’t let us past. They were waiting outside the cafeteria. They were all standing in our way and they wouldn’t move. You didn’t know if it was a trick or for real.
Dizzy: ‘What’s up, pussy boys?’
Clipz: ‘I heard you failed the first test. That’s weak, man!’
I wanted to be a bomb. I wanted to knock them all down. That’s what it felt like. I kept waiting for him to laugh but his face was still hard like he meant it. Like we were enemies.
X-Fire: ‘Don’t worry, Ghana. I’ll think of something easier for you next time, you’ll be alright. What you got then, Ginger?’
Dean went all stiff. My belly went cold.
Dean: ‘I ain’t got nothing.’
Dizzy: ‘Don’t lie to us, man. What’s in your pockets? Show me.’
We couldn’t move. He had to show them or we’d never get past. It wasn’t even fair.
Dean: ‘I’ve got a quid, that’s it. I need it.’
Dizzy: ‘Yeah well, shit happens, innit.’
He took Dean’s quid. There was nothing you could do to stop it. He was very sad, you could tell. He should have put it back in his sock after dinner. I wished I had a quid instead but Mamma only gives me the correct money and no extra.
Dean: ‘F—ing hell, man.’
Dizzy: ‘Don’t be fronting me you little bitch, I’ll batter you.’
In the end they let us past. I felt sorry for Dean for having his quid stolen but I couldn’t help admiring it. I wish I could make them do what I say. If I was the big fish all the little fish would be scared of me. They’d get out of my way so I had the sea all to myself and all the food in it. I’d only let my favourite little fishes work for me, like when the pilot fish eats all the seadust off the shark to stop his gills getting all blocked up (I read about it in my Creatures of the Deep book, only 10p from the market).
Me: ‘It’s only cause I’m black. If you were black they’d let you in the gang as well.’
Dean: ‘I don’t wanna be in their stupid gang, all they do is rob people. Don’t go with them, they’re numpties.’
Me: ‘I was only pretending so they wouldn’t rough us too bad.’
Dean: ‘I hate them, man.’
Me: ‘Me too.’
1st Person Narrator: The Protagonist
Who is telling the story and how does it shape the story?
Harri’s point of view determines how the story is told: It is filtered through a child’s perspective, one shaped by his reality as a recent immigrant, who is both an other and an insider, who is from Ghana but has readily taken on all that he has learned from his peers in inner-city London.
His narration is told in the past-tense and changes form: immediate unfolding action, internal dialogue and reflection,
This is a highly intimate narration—we are eavesdropping on the things he sees, feels, and thinks. We know his secrets, the things he doesn’t tell anyone. But we’re limited by this. We don’t see Harri or any of the events from anyone else’s perspective. For example, he witnesses but does not note key details and clues about what happened to the dead boy. If another narrator’s perspective had shaped the telling, it would have taken a very different turn much earlier on.
Unreliable or Trustworthy? He’s a child, so we take that into account in our interpretation of his narration. We know we can see things he cannot, so we trust what he says because of his innocence, but we know that his interpretation is limited and/or flawed.
Also, what you gain in intimacy with the first person, you lose in perspective. You can’t write about anything your main character couldn’t know, which means you have to have your main character on the spot whenever you want to write an immediate scene. This can limit your plot-development possibilities. Also, when you write your entire novel from one point of view, your readers get to know only one character directly. Everyone else is filtered through your viewpoint character. One way around this is to write in the first person but from several different viewpoints—with different scenes done from inside the heads of different characters. This technique can be highly effective in the hands of an experienced writer.
Guess what? There’s one more narrator in Kelman’s gorgeous novel—a completely unexpected and infrequent narrator, one with a voice that offers a respite of sorts from the intimacy with Harri, the immediacy of his perspective, and the child-like rhythm of his thoughts:
I watched the sun come up and saw the boy off to school, I start every day with the taste of his dreams in my mouth. The taste of all your dreams. You look so blameless from up here, so busy. The way you flock around an object of curiosity, or take flight from an intrusion, we’re more alike than you give us credit for. But not too alike.
This is me nine stories up, perched on a windowsill quietly straining the peremnants of my last millet meal. This is me pitying you, that your lives are so short and nothing’s ever fair. I didn’t know the boy who died, he wasn’t mine. But I do know the shape of a mother’s grief, I know how it clings like those resilient blackberries that prosper by the side of the motorway. Sorry, and everything. Now watch your heads, I need to. There she blows. Don’t shoot the messenger.
1st person; (2nd person?) Past tense, trustworthiness? he’s a pigeon haha but he feels credible because of his empathy.
BOOK REVIEW: http://editorstorontoblog.com/2014/09/17/book-review-pigeon-english-by-stephen-kelman/