Pigeon English Summary

Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English

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Pigeon English Summary

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Pigeon English is the 2011 debut novel of English author Stephen Kelman. Set in modern day United Kingdom, it follows the story of Harrison Opoku, an eleven-year-old Ghanaian immigrant living on a tough, crime-plagued London estate. When a young boy turns up dead near the Dell Farm estate where Harrison lives, he becomes an amateur detective and tries to solve the crime. Along the way, he encounters gang violence as he struggles to assimilate into London society. He and his best friend Dean investigate the life of the boy who turned up dead and struggle to stay innocent as the world around them attempts to corrupt them. Following a non-linear narrative style with the central plot of the murder playing a secondary role to Harrison’s observations about everyday life in his crime-filled neighborhood, Pigeon English explores themes of assimilation, immigrant culture, and the struggle to stay true to oneself as outside pressures pull us in different directions. Pigeon English was acclaimed upon its release, and has been nominated for multiple awards. Most prominently, it was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. It has since become a bestseller and is widely studied in schools and universities, as well as being a featured book in a campaign to improve prisoner literacy. A stage adaptation has also been performed around the United Kingdom.

As Pigeon English begins, the narrator, Harrison Opoku, observes a young boy lying dead in the street outside a chicken restaurant. He only casually knew the boy, but he still says a prayer for him. He observes a pigeon walk in the boy’s blood. Harrison explains to the reader that he lives with his mother and sister, but his father and other relatives have not been able to come over from Ghana yet. He has a special fascination with pigeons. He tells the reader about going to school, about his friend Manik and others. Harrison begins to investigate the dead boy and sees a suspicious male wearing a hoodie near the crime scene. In chapter six, there’s a brief narration shift, as Harrison’s favorite pigeon—which Harrison believes is magic—takes over narrating the book and talks about watching Harrison’s back. When Harrison takes over the narration, he meets with his best friend from school, Dean. Dean is a good friend who helps Harrison stay on the right track, unlike many of the boys who live in Dell Farm with him. Dean and Harrison attend the dead boy’s funeral and decide to investigate the killing together. Casual crime is all around Harrison, but he tries to stay out of it; the investigation and his love for pigeons keep him away from trouble.

The pigeon takes over narration on occasion, telling about his experiences with humans and how easily killing comes to them. The Dell Farm crew continues to try to push Harrison towards crime, and although he occasionally gives in under pressure, he’s not very good at it, usually causing the gang more trouble than help. During stressful times, he thinks back to his family in Ghana and the things they taught him. The gang eventually chooses to target Mr. Frimpong, a kind man from church who is friends with Harrison. They target him because he’s older and weak, and intimidate Harrison into crashing into the old man. He does, and Mr. Frimpong is injured. Harrison is filled with guilt and runs away. He gets rid of all the evidence and vows never to be tempted by the devil again. However, the gang is now after him. He rededicates himself to searching for the boy’s killer with Dean. Harrison continues to find evidence and question people, eventually getting a tip that the killer is Killa, one of the gang members from his building. School gets more and more violent, but Harrison makes it through the year and heads home for summer. He gets home, only to be ambushed by the killer in his lobby and stabbed. The book ends with the pigeon narrating, telling Harrison that he’ll be going home soon. This unique pigeon was a harbinger of death, watching over those who are soon to be taken.

Stephen Kelman is an English novelist whose debut novel, Pigeon English, was an instant bestseller and critical sensation. Growing up in a London estate similar to the book’s Dell Farm, Kelman based his debut novel loosely on the real-life murder of a boy in 2000. His follow-up work, Man on Fire, is a fictionalized biography of the legendary Indian journalist Bibhuti Bhushan Nayak, an activist and Guinness record holder. A graduate of the University of Bedfordshire and a journeyman who worked in many fields including caregiving and marketing before becoming a full-time novelist, Kelman is also the author of several novels and is a vocal activist in poverty-related causes.