Book Review: Pigeon by Alys Conran

Book - PigeonPigeon is a moving story of childhood friendship, heartache and survival. It starts with the boy, Pigeon, and his friend Iola, as they race up hill towards the ice-cream van, united, hopeful, yet haunted by the bleak world that surrounds them. The novel is set in North Wales, in a small impoverished town. It was published simultaneously in Welsh and English, and plays both on ‘pigeon’, (the unloved, overlooked, yet ever-present bird), and ‘pidgin’ (the power of language, and the enigma of bilingualism).   

The story is told in a simple, poetic voice, direct from the mouths of the two children.  It alternates between first and third person, with some dialogue in Welsh. It is gritty, and real, with a subtle underlying humour:

“Nasareth Chapel’s there, on the High Street, weighing the street down. The building scowls as Efa and me walk towards it. The chapel’s made of grey stone and it’s fat like a lord… inside it’s bright, and God! isn’t around yet, so we’re ok. There are lots of ladies who know Efa here. They smell nice and clean…”

The book is about loss and the absence of love. Pigeon, his mother (and step sister, the perfect Cher) suffer both emotional and physical abuse from his English step father, referred to as ‘Him’, whilst Iola is cared for by her elder sister, Efa, since the death of her mother, and grandmother. Iola’s father is absent.

In one sense, the book acts as a voice for those whom the author describes (in an essay published by New Welsh Review) as children she knew whilst growing up: “The child whose mother left his hair uncombed every time after the nit treatment, little black bugs paralysed in his mousy locks. The girl who regularly had cigarette burns on her china-white hands.” It shows us the world from their perspective: vulnerable children, unable to take any kind of control over their own lives.

But it is also about the power of language. Pigeon is obsessed with words, copying them out of the newspaper, learning to pronounce them, syllable by syllable, until they become real, physical things that he can give to others or weave into stories. Iola believes these childish fables, following his lead, going along with his plan to get back at Gwyn (the ice-cream man) until, one day, the stories spill out into the world, with devastating results.

It is only then that Pigeon realises the true origin of his hatred for Gwyn, recognising that stories are just stories that cannot protect him in a physical sense. He takes matters into his own hands, and ends up in a young offenders’ institution, in England, alienated and alone. It is there that he discovers an inability to express himself, feeling “like his mouth’s been shut up”, unable to communicate in his mother tongue, but unwilling and unable to speak English as it is spoken around him. Years pass, and Pigeon returns home. Iola greets him in Welsh, but he replies in English, unable to go back to his previous self, building a barrier between them.

Pigeon begins to search for a way forward, finding a new story which helps to explain his own. Eventually, it is through words, walls and friendship that Pigeon begins to recover from his ordeal. He and Iola must attempt to communicate again, finding the right words to understand what really happened all those years ago, and to build a new story for themselves.

The character of the ice-cream man, Gwyn Gelataio (half Welsh, half Italian) does seem a little stereotypical at first, but his story is both sad and humorous. He is, to begin with, an adult child, still swamped by his dead mother’s voice and expectations, unable to grow up, until Pigeon’s ‘plan,’ and the events that follow, open him up to a world of possibility.

Written in delicate prose, with dialogue that brings the characters to life, Pigeon tells the tragic story of two children haunted by loss and suffering from abuse. But it is also full of hope, and healing, with a little humour thrown in. It tackles the thorny issue of how we see language, how two languages can co-exist in one place and, above all, it shows us the power of words.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.