Review: My Name is Leon – Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon

My Name is Leon – Kit De Waal
Release Date: 02/06/2016
Publisher (UK): Penguin Books
Pages: 272pp RRP: £12.99 (Hardback)
Epub version available here (£7.99)

If I have to say one thing about Kit de Waal’s debut novel, it’s this: read it, read it now. This story, told from the perspective of nine-year-old Leon, is a beautifully crafted piece about love, developing a sense of identity, and the intimate impacts of the child fostering system in the early 1980s.

When Leon’s baby brother Jake is born at the start of the novel, it’s clear something is wrong with his mother, Carol – from the moment of Jake’s birth, she frequently leaves her children on their own and seems overtly focussed on herself. The boys have different absentee fathers (whilst Leon is mixed race, Carol and Jake are white) – Jake’s father, Tony, has rejected both Carol and Jake, whilst Leon’s father, Byron, is serving time in prison. When Carol suffers a nervous breakdown and falls into a catatonic state lasting several days, Leon and Jake are taken in by social services, and later fostered by Maureen. When Jake is eventually adopted, leaving Leon with Maureen, Leon’s world is shattered. Even when his mother does reappear in his life, it’s clear she’s experienced a decline in her mental health. All Leon wants is to be with his family, and it’s that simple desire that drives his story forward.

As time passes, Leon grows to become more independent of his foster home, and begins to explore the world around him, cycling off for hours at a time. He eventually finds himself mixing with the men who tend the local allotments. This array of eccentrics comes to form a set of father figures for Leon, including Tufty, who introduces Leon to his first encounter with race politics. Through this, the novel begins to ramp up the tension, as whilst he sees it through a fog of confusion, Leon does gradually become more aware of the world around him (albeit at a distance of sorts). The depiction of police brutality against the black community in the novel is harrowing, even more so through the eyes of Leon – this was after all, the era of Special Patrol Group and the Brixton and Toxteth Riots. Even Maureen highlights the issue of race (and age difference) as being the reason behind Jake being adopted, whilst Leon is left with her.

Leon is brought to life through a brilliant command of prose – whether it’s through his fascinated fixation on his baby brother’s little movements, or his first encounter with dub music, you can’t help but be drawn to him and hope for something better for him. Furthermore, even Leon’s frustration and confusion are expertly conveyed (at one point, I found myself drawing loose comparisons to the depiction of childhood anger shown in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, as well as its film adaptation) – even through the depictions of his acts of petty theft, perhaps as an effort to take something back from the world that has taken the things he cares for most from him. Whilst there is this undercurrent of anger in the narrative, there is always a sincere depiction of love present throughout: be it Carol’s love for her children, despite being unable to take care of them herself; the flawed but well intended efforts of his foster family; or the life lessons imparted by the men of the allotments. All of this is achieved without ever taking the focus away from Leon – it is always about Leon’s story.

De Waal’s experience as a criminal and family lawyer and her intimate familiarity with the fostering and adoption system (having written training manuals and having grown up with a mother who fostered children) are apparent throughout the book, lending it an authenticity that few others can offer. It’s the small touches she adds that really give the world she’s crafted a unique sense of life. Combined with the carefully honed prose (no doubt developed with her excellent short stories), she’s made a novel that I can only enthusiastically recommend. At times My Name is Leon hits you hard, with so many emotional gut punch moments, but these are so deftly balanced with moments of great humour and happiness, that you can’t help but feel like you’ve read something great by the end.

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