Pigeon English

Eleven-year-old Harri Opoku is the second-fastest runner in Year 7. He has lived on an estate in London for two months when Stephen Kelman’s novel Pigeon English begins, and he has drawn the Adidas stripes onto his trainers with marker pen. But as he gets to know the culture and picks up slang, an older boy is stabbed to death outside a fried chicken shop in his neighbourhood. The story was inspired by the real-life murder of Damilola Taylor, a Nigerian schoolboy killed in Peckham in 2000. And as Harri and his best friend Dean investigate, using detective skills learned from CSI, the novel is all the more terrifying for how blissfully unaware Harri is of the danger surrounding him.


Harri emigrated to London from Ghana with his mum and sister, but the rest of his family is still waiting in Africa, saving up the money to join them. That makes Harri the “man of the house” and he is determined to keep his family safe.


The novel’s title is a reference to “pidgin English”, a term for the blending and simplifying of different languages. Harri is a master, mixing Ghanaian dialect with London slang. “In England, there’s a hell of a lot of different words for everything,” he says. “If you forget one, there’s always another one left over. It’s very helpful.”


Harri’s mum works all hours to pay off loan sharks, and his dad is still trying to scrape together enough money to join them. How does the poverty surrounding the characters affect their decisions and outlook on life? Is it a realistic portrayal?


One of the most striking things about the novel is how quickly Harri gets used to the violence around him. He and his friends are considering joining the local gang, and they play “suicide bomber” in the playground. And yet he retains his sweet, curious good nature.


“Stay good for as long as you can. Just stay the way you are,” says the boyfriend of Harri’s aunt. Despite everything he has seen, Harri is still a good kid in a bad world. But how long can that last?