Reviewed by Alice Farrant
My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal is a powerful story that discusses race, mental illness, and family through the abandonment of a child.
It’s the early 80s, Leon is eight and his baby brother Jake has just been born. As his mother slips into a haze of postnatal depression Leon becomes the sole carer of Jake. He feeds him, changes his nappies and loves him – understanding exactly what Jake’s non-verbal clues mean to best care for him. That is until social services are inevitably brought in.
Jake isn’t even wearing a nappy anymore because it smelt terrible and all the new nappies have gone. He had to sit Jake on a towel in his basket and put some toys in with him but he can get out now and crawl all over the place and looking after Jake is getting much too hard. And they’re both hungry all the time these days.
Jake and Leon are then taken into the care of Maureen, a wonderful foster career, but not their mum. His mother’s abandonment is complex, a mental instability beyond the understanding of both Leon and the era. His brother’s absence is cavernous, an emotional turmoil that seeps from the pages. Leon listens from behind closed doors, takes sneaky looks and private papers – never really gathering all the information he needs to put his family back together.
As the novel progresses Leon is forced to forge his way through a multitude of changes that rock his fragile stability.
Leon can feel their eyes on his back. He knows what their faces look like and how they feel sorry for him and how much they hate his mum. Why can’t they be quiet so he can watch telly or play with his toys?
The novel is told entirely from the perspective of Leon, which allows for the typical misunderstandings of the young. Leon’s voice is so strong, his pain and desperation to be loved and belong so clear. De Waal writes cleverly, running sentences on breathlessly as children do, to denote Leon’s young mind. It is often difficult to write young characters and this method of writing assisted my imagining of Leon as a young boy, rather than a boy with an adult voice. You, as the reader, know that Leon is missing the ability to understand that come with being an adult, and you’ll long for him to be able to comprehend his situation as well as you do.
Underneath this story of a boy and his brother lies the racial tensions of the era, including race riots of 1981 in south London. Running Leon’s story alongside these events gave weight to the pain of Leon being separated from Jake, because Jake is white and thus adoptable. With an absent father, Leon’s only real interaction with people who resemble him are Tufty and his friend Castro at the allotment near where Leon is living. Who give him an idea of what it is to be othered.
‘This is my land,’ says Tufty. ‘My piece of earth. My fucking land.’ DC Green puts his hands in his pockets and laughs. He throws his head back and laughs so loud that all the fat on his belly wobbles. ‘Oh, dear me, Linwood. Something rattled your cage, has it? You lot make me laugh. You’re all the same with your big mouths and your big lips and your “pussy” this and “ras-clat” that. But when it comes to it….’
Then there is mental health. Even the lovely caring Maureen doesn’t understand how ill Leon’s mother is, how unable she is to care for her children, that no amount of trying will help. Leon’s mother definitely isn’t a saint, but she isn’t in control of her actions either. Only Leon could love his mother regardless, could care after the amount of pain she had caused him. In an ideal world, his mother would bring him and Jake back together, but she can’t do that, and life isn’t fair.
This story is not all sadness, and there is a happy light that shines through. The novel is both heartbreaking and illuminating. A story that is not just entertaining to read but also necessary to read. My Name is Leon is a wonderful novel of a small mixed-race boy who just wants to be able to live with his brother, but society tells him he isn’t allowed.
You can read more by Alice at her blog, of Books, or find her on Twitter, @nomoreparades.
Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon, (Viking, 2016). 978-0241207086, 272pp., hardback.
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