Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Who’d chook a boy just to get his Chicken Joe’s?

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Around ten years ago, a young Nigerian immigrant, 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, was beaten by boys barely older than him in Peckham, a district in South London. Damilola later bled to death. The incident sparked outrage in the United Kingdom and was subsequently pointed to as proof that the country’s youth had gone terribly astray.

The same incident seems to have also inspired a debut novel, Pigeon English, with 11-year-old Harri Opoku filling in for the voice of Damilola Taylor. As the book opens, Harri has recently emigrated from Ghana to London with his older sister and his mother. Dad and younger sister and the rest of the family are still in the native country and Harri is often brought back to his home country through extended phone calls exchanged between the two sides.

Like most children, Harri is not privy to the intricate goings-on in the lives around him. It’s a fact made worse by the displacement brought about by immigration. Harri must not just figure out the ways of the world, he must do so in a new place where the rules of the game are entirely unfamiliar. Even if life in the ghetto is painful and lived in extreme poverty, Harri finds plenty to keep him in good spirits. For one thing, he wants to try every kind of Haribo (candy) in the store close to him.

Even better he has struck a tentative friendship with a local boy, Dean. With Dean’s help, Harri is determined to solve a recent crime—one where a kid like himself is found brutally murdered in a struggle over a fast food meal. The devastating tragedy affects Harri deeply and he is determined (in a typical na├»ve and childish way) to find the killers. Unfortunately he gets too close to the real killers—people who might not appreciate interference from a bright-eyed curious kid.

Pigeon English is narrated through Harri’s voice so the English is broken and mixed in with special words whose meanings become apparent only after a few readings. “Bo-styles” for example, means very good while “Asweh” is the more readily understandable, “I swear.”

Harri’s musings and experiences can be funny at one moment and heartbreaking the next. Author Stephen Kelman has done a terrific job in capturing the boy’s voice. The problem with Pigeon English is that the same voice eventually becomes a distraction. It never becomes seamless enough so the reader can concentrate on what the boy is saying—you’re forever hung up on how he’s saying it. And of course there are times when he says too much: “I can make a fart like a woodpecker. Asweh, it’s true. The first time it happened was an accident. I was just walking along and I did one fart, but then it turned into lots of little farts all chasing it.” Did we really need to know that?

It was entirely a coincidence that I read this novel right around the time that the London riots made headline news around the world. As was reported by the New York Times and other news outlets, it was the youth who were the primary looters and criminals in these riots—an effect brought about by a “combination of economic despair, racial tension and thuggery.” The riots, the paper reported, “reflect the alienation and resentment of many young people in Britain.” Read at this particular moment in history, Pigeon English then seems much more than a fairly good read—it also comes across as an important one. One can’t help but wonder how much the timely relevance of its subject matter lead Pigeon English to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year.

“I made the choice, nobody forced me,” says Harri’s mother about the decision to move her kids to London from Ghana. “I did it for me, for these children. As long as I pay my debt they’re safe and sound. They grow up to reach further than I could ever carry them.” Pigeon English is a moving novel not just because it is a stark story about London’s ghettos, but because it reminds us that for many in the developing world, a move to this kind of a hell is actually a move up.

 This review was originally published in

Review: We The Animals by Justin Torres

“We’re never gonna escape this,” Paps said. “Never.”

We The Animals by Justin Torres
Reviewed by Poornima Apte

We The Animals in this wonderful debut novel refers to three brothers, close in age, growing up in upstate New York. They are the Three Musketeers bound strongly together not just because of geographical isolation but because of cultural separateness too. The brothers are born to a white mother and a Puerto Rican father—they are half-breeds confused about their identity and constrained by desperate and mind-numbing poverty.

This wild and ferocious debut is narrated by the youngest of the three, now grown, looking back on his childhood. It’s a coming-of-age story told in lyrical sentences that are exquisitely crafted. And while there are many moments of beauty in here, there are also ones of searing violence.

The boys can do nothing but stand back and watch as the intensely abusive relationship between the parents plays out everyday and it’s almost worse because the evidence creeps up after the fact. One day, Mom’s eyes are swollen shut and cheeks turned purple “He told us the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that’s how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out,” the narrator, barely aged seven, recalls. The severe abuse is compounded and made even more heartbreaking by the boys’ innocence and gullibility—they buy this lie and many others, whole.

The daily struggle for survival is heart wrenching yet without melodrama. “We stayed at the table for another forty-five minutes, running our fingers around our empty bowls, pressing our thumb tips into the cracker plate and licking the crumbs off,” Torres writes about one of the many evenings when one can of soup and a few crackers would have to make do for all of them. The boys don’t quite understand why their parents are seemingly happy one moment and why their mother slips into deep bouts of depression the next.

One of the many beautiful chapters in the book is one called “Night Watch” (each short chapter in this slim volume has a name). In it, the boys accompany Dad to work when he finds work at a night job. They have to sleep on the floor in sleeping bags in front of the vending machines, out of plain sight. They are here (and not home) because Mom is at her job working the night shift at a local brewery. The next morning, when a white man comes to relieve Dad of his duties, he spots the three musketeers and can guess at the situation. From the argument that follows, the boys already know that Dad has probably lost this job too. The family’s otherness, especially as perceived by the boys, is just beautifully rendered here.

As the boys enter adolescence, the narrator immediately knows he is separate and apart from his brothers. “They smelled my difference—my sharp, sad, pansy scent,” Torres writes. It wouldn’t be a reveal to say that the difference lies in the narrator’s sexuality, which can be glimpsed early on, if one pays close attention.

In a recent interview, the author Justin Torres has said: “I think that everybody struggles with family in some way and I hope that they can come away realizing that you can go back to those experiences and find something beautiful in everything and that you can make art out of your experiences.” With We The Animals, Torres has crafted just that—a beautiful and memorable work of art. This slender novel packs a powerful punch.

Justin Torres proves you don’t have to pen a giant volume to write precociously about huge themes such as family, race, adolescence and sexuality. Of course Torres writes so beautifully that you almost wish that he did.

This review was originally published on