Disclaimer: I received a copy of My Name is Leon for review, but the opinions below are my own and unbiased.
Leon is a 9 year old mixed race boy, living with his mother and brand new half-brother Jake. His mum has mental health issues, so Leon looks after both her and Jake as best he can. But it all gets too much for him, and social services take the boys into care. Their new foster-mum Maureen gives the boys some much-needed love and stability in their lives.
Baby Jake is white, and adoptive parents are quickly found for him. But it’s not so easy to find new parents for Leon, so the boys are split up. Leon is left to deal with all the confusing emotions of a 9 year old boy who has lost his family. Life is difficult, but he learns that family doesn’t just mean the people who you are related to.
I absolutely loved this book. It’s written in Leon’s voice, so you really get to experience things from his point of view. You see how the adults have Real faces and Pretend faces, and hear how they talk about him when they think Leon isn’t listening. You feel the intense love he has for his baby brother, and his pain when Jake’s new parents take him away.
My Name is Leon illustrates some of the difficulties of life in care in the early 1980s, especially for a mixed-race child at an awkward age. The plotline is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measures. Kit de Waal worked for fifteen years in criminal and family law, and has sat on adoption panels, which gives her novel an authentic touch. And I certainly recognised some of the facets of 80’s life that she weaves into the story.
I instantly warmed to Leon, I think you’d have to have a heart of stone not to love this character. My heart ached for him as one family member after another disappeared from his life, I really hoped that he’d get a happy ending. And when I finished the book, I didn’t want to leave Leon, I wanted to find out more about what happened to him. For me, that’s a sign of a great character.
I also loved the other characters that Kit de Waal has created. Leon’s foster mum Maureen is an absolute angel, and also adds a comedic element that lightens the story. And the men at the allotments who befriend Leon are much needed male role models, even if they aren’t always quite what they seem!
My Name is Leon is set against the background of the race riots in the early 80s, which adds an extra layer of tension to the story. Leon has to cope with so many difficulties at his young age. It still shocks me that these kind of attitudes were so prevalent within my own lifetime.
This is Kit de Waal’s debut novel, and made the shortlist of the Costa First Novel Award 2016. I hope that Kit is already working on her second novel, I can’t wait to see what she writes next!
Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not.
As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile – like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.
Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we manage to find our way home.
A superb debut novel which is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in turn – 8.5/10