Just when the publishing world is ready to assert that nothing good ever comes out of the slush pile, a talent like Stephen Kelman comes along. The 34-year-old Englishman—who before turning to writing worked in jobs ranging from house-cleaner to warehouse operative—began his novel, Pigeon English, in response to a spate of news stories about British youth violence. But he also called upon his own childhood experience, which was not unlike that of Hari Opuku, the narrator of this electric debut.

An 11-year-old Ghanaian immigrant who loves sneakers, YouTube and driving his older sister crazy, Hari is decidedly a child. Yet he’s also wise beyond his years—growing up as part of a London housing project’s insular community of illegal aliens, addicts and knife-wielding thugs will do that to a kid. Indeed, violence is a common occurrence, and one Hari describes with as much honesty, humor and emotion as he does a grade-school crush or the pigeon that regularly visits his balcony. Still, when one of his classmates is killed in the street, Hari does feel deeply moved and decides, along with his best friend Dean, to solve the crime using techniques gleaned from episodes of “CSI.” But while his attempts to go undercover and obtain DNA samples may seem comical, as the duo comes closer to the truth (and the murderer), their adventures grow ever more dangerous.

Hari’s joie de vivre is infectious, and his voice simultaneously charming and haunting—similar to the narrators of Emma Donoghue’s Room or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And much like those books, Pigeon English is a story for adults whose success rests almost entirely on the unreliability of a child’s interpretation. Were Kelman to have entrusted this tale to an older teller, we’d no doubt lose the excitement, immediacy and hopefulness that infuses it.

Read an interview with Stephen Kelman about Pigeon English.

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