Harrison Opoku is a Ghanaian boy living in London. He lives in a high-rise housing project and he is fully, entirely alive. He is eleven years old. He asks excellent questions, wonders why people do cruel things to others, and seeks his way in the world. This book, told in Harri’s words, took me away this summer. I loved Pigeon English, the writing, the story, but most of all, I loved Harrison.
If the test of a novel is that the reader cares about a character, then this book is a marvel. It is. Stephen Kelman captures Harrison’s quirky way of speaking English. Kelman makes us root for Harri because he is so human, so vulnerable and honest. He shows us a boy who passionately loves life– but who cannot be seen to love life– or he’ll be in trouble with the gang kids who rule his housing project in inner-city London. This book tells a story of growing up, of growing well, of growing into goodness. This story also chronicles the inevitable collision between innocence and experience. Yes, I thought of William Blake’s poems often as I read this novel. In his “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience,” Blake gives us the voices of those who live in innocence, wonder, and simplicity. Then he shows us how those voices change after being wounded by the world– experience. Kelman invites us into the beauty and awe of that same collision.
Stephen Kelman has won many awards for his writing. Pigeon English was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize in 2011. But the real prize happens in the heart of the reader. This book, its characters, language, and setting will not let you go. I can’t forget about Harri. His goodness, his humor, his joy at the most blessedly ordinary moments in life.