Things for the first-time novelist to avoid: Don’t write in the first-person; it limits your perspective to a single voice and makes it very hard to develop other characters. Don’t write about children (unless you’re writing for children) as you severely constrain the experiences your characters can convincingly have. Don’t anthropomorphise; talking animals only work as a clue to insanity. Don’t use dialect in narrative; if it is not your own mode of speaking you will struggle to make the language consistent and if it is then you can overdo it and lose those unfamiliar with it. Don’t write about a known event; you risk being criticised for inaccuracy and/or exploitation.
It is doubtful Stephen Kelman sought any such advice – he has strayed into just about every danger area he could and won through convincingly on almost every front. If there are echoes of the Damiola Taylor case they are faint – Kelman’s little Ghanaian boy and the victim whose murder he plays at solving don’t rely on that incident for their existence and the reader is only drawn back to remember Taylor at the end as the happy little boy skipping through a concrete jungle caught on CCTV.
The language, the situation, the enthusiasm for playing the games of life and thirst for understanding its rules are all completely convincing; an eleven year old boy misinterprets so much and glibly accepts what goes on around him as normal, with no moral compass to tell him that something is wrong. The first-person narrative does have the result that some of the characters are a little two-dimensional, but Kelman uses the device of scripted conversations, so that we can hear the nuances that Harri misses.
Indeed the only real problem with this novel is the device of using a pigeon as an observer. One can sense that the author felt the need for a second voice, a different perspective on the events unfolding; perhaps he felt Harri needed an imaginary friend. If so, neither of those needs is apparent and the pigeon does not add anything, indeed in giving a promise that it could have some divine-intervention purpose it detracts from the growing menace that Harri is oblivious to.
This is a novel to be highly recommended, particularly to teenagers: one can see it being used as a set text in early secondary school. What it has to say about that age group being involved in violence and petty crime is not so much pointing towards any form of solution as understanding how they have little choice other than to become embroiled, however innocent or ‘good’ they are. Inadvertently, and presumably in the expectation of giving him benefits not available in Ghana, Harri’s mother has settled him into a culture where the pecking order is paramount, where it is necessary to ‘prove yourself’ if only by keeping quiet, and where the abused take their treatment as a sign of affection. It is a testament to Kelman’s talent that this is not a bleak novel, but rather a story full of sympathetic (some funny, some likeable) characters just dealing with the hand they find themselves dealt.