There is more to the sky than just the pretty birds – those with colourful feathers or melodic songs. In among the parakeets and the blackbirds are the pigeons: those clumsy, fumbling and unadorned birds that are populous to the point of invisibility. It can be easy to forget the humble pigeon as it pecks away at the waylaid crumbs of your lunch (most often than not whilst missing several toes), but pigeons are birds too and are as unique as any other bird. This, essentially, is the sentiment of Alys Conran’s debut novel, Pigeon, and no, it’s not about an actual pigeon (although the idea isn’t that unfeasible: Patrik Suokind’s, The Pigeon follows a security guard freaked out to the point of existential crisis by a pigeon roosting in front of his apartment). Our pigeon is human and our protagonist, he is seemingly ordinary and unexceptional. Pigeon follows a young boy from childhood into adolescence – a trial pot-marked with disaster. He shares the limelight with his dutiful best friend Iola and together they find their childhood fantasies collapsing into violence. It is a strong first novel, steeped in childhood nostalgia, with a plot that examines daring themes of childhood abuse, mental illness and loneliness. It reads quickly in language that is not overly complicated and it engages the reader in a plot that quickly descends into darkness, however, as the intensity of the first section of the book ebbs away the plot never quite regains its ground and as characters become young adults they do not quite engage the reader as they did initially. The text gives the reader a beautifully rendered setting and some characters that touchingly illuminate the delicacies of the human mind, but it doesn’t quite deliver the knock-out punches that would really make the novel a powerful read.
The story is split between the two children; Iola has the privilege of the first person narrative while Pigeon is relegated to the third. Iola shows the reader the emotional experience of the plot, whereas Pigeon is more allusive, looked in on from the outside and this emphasises Pigeon as a cagey and isolated personality. In the reflectively moody setting of rural Wales the two children are both living in broken homes: Iola missing both her parents and living under her sister’s care; and Pigeon, missing a father and living in the shadow of a violently abusive stepfather. They both have a lot on their plates, and though these struggles are seldom discussed between them, they escape their troubles together through rebellion and fantasy. They mess around at Sunday school, skip school and tell tales. Gwyn, the local ice-cream van man – quite unbeknownst to him – becomes the villain of the village in the children’s eyes and he has to deal with the consequences of what a young and troubled mind can deliver. While the two are distracting themselves reality comes back quite suddenly when a violent act changes the course of their relationship and their futures. Pigeon and Iola separate at this crucial moment with guilt hanging over one of them at the expense of the other. From this crucial moment the book lets the two protagonists grow into young adults before, quite suddenly, they are thrown back into each other’s lives; and so the plot moves from childhood games to teenage redemption. Despite their fates they can’t go on with their lives until they come to terms with the past.
There is a lot is celebrate in this novel, for one it creates a wonderful sense of place and culture. The Welsh setting is not simply just a background setting: the culture of Wales spills through the characters and into the very text itself. Conran is herself from north Wales so there is this is a very personal reflection on place. Though written in English, the children often speak in Welsh and their dialogue is written down as it is, rather than translated away. This lets the reader experience the sounds and tones that the characters themselves are experiencing, and if/when the reader doesn’t understand they soon gather what is being said via the context:
‘Sut mae?’ says Gwyn shakily.
The sniffing quietens.
‘Be ydach chi’n ei wneud yma?’ His Welsh even more formal than usual. Asking the question, there’s a sinking feeling that he doesn’t want to know why they’re here after all.
As well as being physically evident in the text, the Welsh language is also narratively important. Later in the novel, when Pigeon has moved to England, he loses his Welsh words – in essence that intrinsic part of him is lost. Part of his recovery from the violence of his early years involves the recovery of his former language and this theme of the importance of language for personal expression runs through the text. The novel self-consciously delights in pointing out how much words matter.
Regarding the development of characters in the text some of the minor figures manage to stand out even more than the principle characters. The adults that surround Iola and Pigeon seem just as lost and bitter. Nain – Iola’s grandmother – comes forth as a blunt and slightly cantankerous woman whose despondency in men is both humorous and tragic at the same time. Likewise, Pigeon’s mother, faced with the pain of abuse and the inability to protect her child descends slowly into a shadow of her former self in descriptions that are very affecting. Likewise, Gwyn – with his over-baring Italian mother buying him a career changing gelato van – is a gratifying character to run in to. Mental illness is present in many of the book’s characters – explored as both circumstantial and intrinsic. I think the forthright exploration of the subject is one of the most interesting aspects of the book: the author shows it is varied and complicated and as a curse that can affect anyone.
The book splits quite directly into two parts: that of childhood and adolescence. The first part is more events driven and the pace draws you into the text quickly. The second section slows for the characters to consider their actions, but sometimes these reflections are a little too self-diagnostic, stating their feelings as if in therapy, over-illustrating the ‘coming-to-termness’ of their predicaments and this jars slightly against the earlier easy flow of narrative. Also, after the seminal event of the novel, the narrative does not follow on with the intensity one might expect, not that the plot should build to some action movie crescendo, but rather ,that though troubled by their past their reflections on it seem rather meandering. If the direction of the plot is one of redemption it gets a little lost at the end and the reader is not as invested in the two principle characters as they should be. The novel tails off a little at the end and perhaps is a little heavy-handed with its metaphors, for example, Pigeon finds solace in building walls, piecing them back together like himself:
And that’s how it begins, with Elfyn, the building things back again, the putting the pieces back in their place.
Overall, Pigeon is fine first novel with some really touching moments and its plot displays a touchingly sincere pride in the power of words. Conran seeks to remind us that each individual is as exceptional as any other; each has their own story to tell both the glimmering peacocks and the rainy grey coloured pigeons.
Alys Conran is the author of ‘Pigeon’ (Parthian Books, 2016). Her short fiction has been placed in the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Manchester Fiction Prize. She completed her MA Creative Writing at Manchester, graduating with distinction, and is currently, with the support of a scholarship, working on a second novel about the legacy of the Raj in contemporary British life. She has read her fiction and poetry at The Hay Festival and on Radio Four and her work is to be found in magazines including Stand and The Manchester Review, and also in anthologies by The Bristol Review of Books, Parthian, The Camden Trust and Honno. She also publishes poetry, creative non-fiction, creative essays and literary translations. Originally from north Wales, she spent several years in Edinburgh and Barcelona before returning to the area to live and write, and speaks fluent Spanish and Catalan as well as Welsh and English. She has also trained and practiced in Youth and Community Work, and has developed projects to increase access to creative writing and reading. She is now lecturer in creative writing at Bangor.
Photo courtesy of Anna Milner
Pigeon was published by Parthian Books on 1st June 2016.
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Review by Jessica Gregory
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