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Stephen Kelman's book creates buzz
First-time authors either jump on to the stage with a bang, or slip unnoticed through the curtains of the literary theatre. Stephen Kelman might not have created the kind of stir that an Aravind Adiga or Arundhati Roy did, but he is no wallpaper either. In fact, he has been in the spotlight ever since he scooped up a six-figure advance for his debut novel. Not a bad achievement for a young man from Luton, England, who happens to be the first in his family to pursue higher education and has served his time as a cleaner, a warehouse operative and in local government administration.
The book has created a buzz, not just because of the fat advance and Kelman's background, but also because it is said to be based on the life and death of Damilola Taylor, a 10-year-old from Nigeria who was attacked by a couple of pre-teen boys in Peckham in November 2000. That incident and the lengthy trial that followed gripped Britain for years and finds resonance in this novel. This story revolves around 11-year-old Harrison 'Harri' Opoku, who has just arrived in London from Ghana with his mother and older sister.
"In England, there's a hell of different words for everything. It's for if you forget one, there's always another one left over. It's very helpful. Gay and dumb and lame mean all the same. Piss and slash and tinkle mean all the same, " is among the first observations he makes upon his arrival.
Opening and ending with a crime scene, the plot revolves around Harri's project of turning detective to investigate the murder of a young boy near his council estate - a mission which leads to unforeseen events and tosses in his life upside down. Episodes from his secret project are interspersed with the everyday goings on in his life. "Some people use their balconies for hanging washing or growing plants. I only use mine for watching the helicopters. It's a bit dizzy, " says the lad, his alienness as amusing as it is scary.
His biggest fascination in London is the tube: "When the train comes everybody starts pushing. They can't wait to get on the train. They're panicking for if there's no room. Advise yourself! There's plenty of room for everybody! The train is long as the whole tunnel! When the train started, it made my belly turn over like on the aeroplane, I nearly fell over. Everybody was bumping everybody. Asweh, it was brutal. "
Harri discovers the phobia of germs and disease that the English harbour;his nonchalant longing for his entire family to be together again jumps up from corners you little expect them to;learning to knot a tie and the acquisition of a Chelsea jersey are his rites of passage in England;he learns many new words, including 'fugly' (apparently, a girl "who always wants a baby from you" ); his equation with his sister Lydia and their capers together is well-detailed;his crush on a girl named Poppy in school is a recurring juvenile passion;and then there is his relationship with a pigeon, who is a frequent flier to his balcony - his friend, confidant, guardian angel and guide.
Getting through the book is not challenging - the language does not call for a dictionary on hand, the plot is not terribly thick, the narrative is not complicated. It sounds much like a collection of stories told by a young boy, in his tongue. It's fast, pacy and has its moments of lighthearted luminosity. And to be sure, it is a novel that holds promise for a large readership - it works at the level of a school-going reader as well as that of his parent, and it holds appeal to both the immigrant and the native. But by the end of it all, one is bound to ask the question whether the six-figure advance was justified.
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