In 1993 we had Roddy Doyle winning the Booker with “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”, as told through the eyes of a 10 year old, and in 2003 we had D.B.C. Pierre’s “Vernon God Little” told by the 15 year old Vernon, last year Emma Donoghue brought us Jack a 5 year old who has spent his whole life in one room. This year we have Harri an 11 year old Ghanaian, recently arrived in Britain and living in a Council high rise. According to “The Independent” this debut novel “was the subject of a 12-publisher, six-figure bidding war.”
Whereas Roddy Doyle dealt with deteriorating home relationships and Irish struggles and Vernon told his story of being wrongly accused of a Texan shooting and Jack spoke of his wonder for all things bigger than his room, “Pigeon English” draws the innocence of youth together with the harsh reality of gang violence, alienation in a new country whilst wanting to be accepted, single parenting not by choice but by necessity and the simple joys of being young:
The best bit is running in the rain. If you point your face up to the sky at the same time as running, it nearly feels like you’re flying. You can close your eyes or you can keep them open, it’s up to you. I like both. You can open your mouth if you want. The rain just tastes like water from the tap except it’s quite warm. Sometimes it tastes like metal.
At the start of the novel he witnesses the stabbing death of one of his school acquaintances and teams up with one of his school friends to solve the crime, with toy binoculars:
I won a binoculars with my raffle ticket. Asweh, it was a dope-fine piece of luck. They’re army colour. They actually work even if they’re just plastic. I looked at the whole world though them.
Sellotape can do lots of different detective jobs. You can catch fingerprints in it or hairs. You can use it to make traps. You can stick your notes Down so they don’t blow away. You can even catch the criminals themselves if you have enough, like if you made it into a spiderweb. Only it would take all the Sellotape in the world to hold a fully grown person.
And a raft of cunning all gleaned from one of his friends who watches all the CSI tv shows.
The standard Booker themes of growing up in an alien world, class struggle, innocence and a deteriorating “Empire” are all to the fore here delivered in a powerful 11 year old voice. Unlike Doyle and Pierre’s earlier winners, even though delivered by a youthful voice, it stands apart by depicting the futility of gang violence whilst touching on a raft of current political and local issues. A timely release given Britain’s recent gang issues and that alone could be enough to sway the judge’s minds. A warning for those who weren’t fans of “Vernon God Little” you may also find this infuriating.
As this is the first of the 2011 longlist I have read, it is hard to judge its claims on the prize itself, but personally I believe it is a certainty to make the shortlist and as I make my way through the remaining 12 novels it will become clearer as to its worthiness of the major gong. Thoroughly enjoyable and a book that lingers with you, what more could you want?