Pigeon English

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman - A book that tackles contemporary issues in an insightful manner. (Winner of the Booker Prize)

In Literature, getting into the head of a child & telling his or her story from his or her point of view, has a good chance of being a winner.

But throw in a mixture of cultures, races & settings such as in Stephen Kelman's "Pigeon English," there's an even greater chance of success.


The story is about an 11 year old boy (Harri) who has recently come over to live in London with his Mum from Ghana, leaving behind his sister and father.

He lives on a large high rise estate in the outskirts of London with an array of interesting characters.

When a teenager is knifed to death, Harri decides to look for clues to find his killer. He ends up getting mixed up in something sinister with devastating consequences.

(It is based on the Damilola Taylor teenage murder that happened in London in 2008.)


There are so many elements to Pigeon English; sadness, humour, fear, joy, hope, family unity, superstition & brutality:


These permeate the whole book. It's difficult to read of a young boy of 11 describing the harsh & brutal way of life on the estate, experiencing incidents which people several decades older have no experience of. But the humour comes from an 11 year old's perspectives on life, where his perpectives have only been partially formed. We laugh at the nicknames; Asbo the dog, Terry Takeaway etc.

He can't talk to Altof because he's a Somalian & thus a pirate, yet he can't swim!! Mum snores but Papa would "roll her on her side like a big sausage so she can't snore anymore." A policeman must be allowed to wee into anyones cap if needs must. And the funniest humour is his interpretation of sex! Yes! there are plenty of examples of laugh out loud humour BUT the humour is tinged with sadness at such experiences too early in his young life.

He comes from a strong family but there is huge irony in that they come to England for a better life yet when he thinks of home & specially his father, he describes something almost idyllic. Ghana is the better place for him to be! When things are bad, he thinks of building the shed with his dad, When he wins the school race, he thinks of his dad. He loves his whole family. Is he let down by them? Some will think he was let down but, even though he had been taught good values, his Dad was too far away to be supportive & his Mum was working every hour God sent to save money for his father's air fare! They are in a "Catch 22" position.

This plays a part in the story. It creates much humour but also sadness to the adult reader. "The devil's too strong round here," therefore God must be upset. Harri has an alligator tooth in his pocket to keep him safe & anything to do with sex will result in Aids! There are a mixture of superstitions from the various cultures on the estate & at school.

The story is easy to read & is convincing, perhaps signifying that the writer has a good knowledge of life on such an estate; it all rings true. Most readers in England will have connected it to the Damilola case of several years ago. The end of the book tells us that this is so! Structurally it starts with a killing & it finishes with a killing but sometimes the structure gets lost.


The ending is a crucial part of the story. Did you anticipate the ending or was it a shock?

What is the significance of the Pigeon?

How significant is the lack of a male role model in Harri's life?

How accurate do you think the portrayal of inner city poverty is?

Is there anything more that Harri's mother could have done to protect her children?

Can you attribute any blame to Harri's mother regarding the ending of the book? Is anyone else to blame?


Our book club rated Pigeon English 7/10.

The story was interesting and harrowing and as such provoked some interesting discussion.

The book is not without criticism; it could do without the Pigeon flying in & out of the story, though there will be those who disagree.

And at times it goes on too much; the writer can labour his points. A shorter version could have made a greater impact.

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