The Sacred Flame by Gemma Hirst

First novels are never perfect, but that doesn’t matter when a book manages to strike such an emotional chord. Even if it takes a while to get there, but when it does, it’s worth it.

Eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku emigrates from Ghana with his mother and his sister, Lydia. His mother attempts to give her children a better life in London, but Harri is thrown headfirst into a world filled with gangs and crime. The book begins with the murder of one of Harri’s schoolmates, and Harri and his friend Dean decide to play detective and look for the killer.

Reading between the lines is essential here because the novel is written in the first person, and Harri’s naivety masks a lot of the things going on around him. The innocent, childlike voice feels a little forced at first, but as the story progresses, Harri starts to feel more real. His speech is littered with colloquial phrases, both from Ghana (asweh, hutious) and slang that he has picked up in London (dope-fine). In the main, these add to Harri’s personality, but at times it can feel as if Kelman is simply repeating the only slang he knows in the hope that it will make the book sound clever.

Slang is just one of the tricks that Kelman uses that can sometimes feel a bit forced; we are also treated to narration in the voice of the pigeon. This feels a little like it has been pasted in at the last minute, because it breaks up the flow of the story. It is also hard to tell at first that the voice even is the pigeon; it seems so out of place.

Despite this, the book is still a fast-paced read. The scripted dialogue is in keeping with the speed of Harri’s thoughts, and although the plot can seem a little jumpy at times, it takes you with it, throwing you from Harri’s flat to the school to the streets of London as if Harri is holding your hand and leading you there.

Although this is a book about a child, it isn’t a book for children. The language and subject matter talked about by Harri and his classmates, which includes talk of killing people, and the use of swear words, is a reasonably accurate representation of high school discussions and yet could be deemed unsuitable for children of that age to read about.

The novel shows gang crime through Harri’s naive point of view and not everything is black and white. Humour and tragedy are interwoven into a book that has the ability to make you both laugh and cry.

Pigeon English is published by Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2012. ISBN: 978-1408815687