There’s something missing from Stephen Kelman’s Booker shortlisted novel – a glossary of Ghanese slang. Believe me, if I had found this prior to page 150 (or thereabouts) I would have been much less irritated. Call me slow on the uptake but I persisted until I worked out the meanings of dope-fine (nothing to do with drugs), chooked (nothing to do with eggs) and red-eyes (nothing to do with a sleepless night) on my own.
Anyway, once I got to grips with the slang, this gritty, urban tale of life as an illegal immigrant in a run-down, violence-filled housing estate became quite compelling and complex. The worldliness of the 11-year old child narrator contrasted with his naivety. The sweetness of his first romance opposed to his wanton hooliganism. The workings of his conscience and attempts to understand and identify the murderers of a young lad who had been stabbed in his estate. Nancy Drew in the 21st century? I think not. Real danger ahead, misdirection with fatal consequences. It didn’t take much to know that this was going to end badly and I was so hoping that it wouldn’t.
As a social issues novel, written as a response to the murder of Damiola Taylor and highlighting the frightening realities of knife culture in British urban life, this is a graphic and unforgettable read. But a Booker shortlisted novel?
This is where my review becomes as unpleasant as being pooped on from on high – that ridiculous pigeon. OK, so the bullying magpies in the natural world are mirrored in the human but am I really expected to believe that a pigeon replaces God? That
a young boy a reader would believe in the protective interest of a bird? Great magical realism leaves me cold and this isn’t great. So imagine …. I’ve come to the conclusion that the pigeon was inserted to justify the snappy title. Which is really, really unfortunate. In failing to raise the book to its literary aspirations, it does, however, succeed in destroying its street cred.