Rating: 4 stars
My Name is Leon is a wonderful, warm, funny, tense, sad and hopeful book. When it appeared on the voting list for the Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge, I read the blurb and didn’t feel anything much for it. The blurb made the book sound twee and patronising. Now that I’ve read it, I can appreciate how difficult it is to try to condense its essence to a paragraph. The book is anything but twee or patronising.
I didn’t intend to read it. It was in stock at my local library and on my reserve list for the challenge, but it wasn’t a priority. It was after the challenge was over that I kept bumping into the book in reviews and must-read lists in magazines. The things I read about it made me want to read it far more than the publisher’s blurb had, so I picked it up from the library last week.
Reading it made me think lots of things. It made me grateful for the childhood I had. It made me grateful for the childhoods my niece and nephews had. It made me think about the good thing that foster carers do, opening their homes to children, loving them, keeping them safe. It made me sad for the parents who can’t cope, and for the children who don’t always get the love and security they need. It made me feel for all those children who become old before their time, because they’re caring for themselves, their siblings and their parents.
I liked the way Kit de Waal wrote from Leon’s perspective, and how she captured his nine and ten year old way of thinking. Another aspect that I particularly liked was the way de Waal doesn’t fill in all the detail. She describes characters’ appearance in a way that allows the reader to think about what’s going on in the background of their lives, but doesn’t spell it all out. She refers to events, such as the IRA hunger strikes, almost casually. There’s no need for her to provide a history lesson, though. It’s up to the reader to bring that knowledge with them or find it out for themselves. I appreciate it when authors do that.
As for the story, My Name is Leon is a gut wrenching book that shows that, even from the youngest age, we adapt to our circumstances and do the best we can. It shows the difficulties some people have in coping with poverty, depression, and turmoil in relationships. The book doesn’t cast judgement, but it demonstrates how some people do. It shines a light on the good and bad aspects of social care, how it provides a safety net for the vulnerable at the same time as destroying families. It captures the way community works, with people looking out for one another.
Leon is the eldest son of Carol. His dad leaves after Carol has an affair with a married man and becomes pregnant. When Jake is born, Carol can’t cope. She already has mental health problems and post natal depression adds to her struggle. When Carol is admitted to hospital, Leon and Jake are taken into care. Jake is adopted, but Leon is mixed race and harder to place with a new family. The novel explores Leon’s reaction to these massive changes in his life, and the way he relates to the people who drop in and out. Solace comes in the form of a BMX bike that gives Leon some freedom, and in the friendships he makes on an allotment close to where he’s living.
Set at the time of the 1981 race riots and the Conservative government policy of stop and search used against black men, Leon is an innocent observer of the prejudice against young black men that causes them to rise up against authority. Kit de Waal is skillful in the way she makes the riots background noise in Leon’s world. She has them impact on him through the conversations he overhears in his foster carer’s house, through his friendship with a man called Tufty who reminds Leon of his dad, and through his trying to run away in the middle of a riot without understanding what is going on. Significant social change is happening around him, but Leon’s only care is in reuniting with his baby brother and finding their mother, so that they can be a family again.
de Waal is also skillful in capturing the anger Leon feels and the way he processes it. He has a rucksack that he fills with the things he collects in preparation for finding and rescuing his brother. His plan is straight out of the action films he watches and the comics he reads. To him it is entirely practical. The rucksack represents all of Leon’s anger, hope and security.
I was roughly the same age as Leon in 1981, and I loved the little details scattered through the book that placed the story in that time. The fact that Leon’s bag is a rucksack, and not the more recent backpack. The beige melamine table on the train Leon catches with his foster carer. BMX bikes, Curly Wurlys, portable cassette radios, early 80s fashions, the supermarket shopping experience. All of these things brought my childhood environment back. I remember the riots being on the news, but not really understanding them, and I could appreciate in the book the way the riots were incidental to the rest of Leon’s life. My sister was at university in Liverpool in 1981, living in Aigburth, which borders Toxteth, where the Liverpool riots took place over the summer. I remember when we visited her in the shared house she lived in, there was a hole in one of the living room windows after the riots, but nobody said much beyond, “It might be a bullet hole, but it was probably a stone.”
I’m really glad that I picked this up from the library. It’s one of the better books I’ve read so far this year. And I’m excited to discover that it’s going to be adapted for tv by Sir Lenny Henry’s production company.