A heart-wrenching, complex, stellar debut from Kit De Waal about the intricacies and complications of the British care system during the 80’s specifically relating to a sensitive little boy named Leon.
We meet Leon when he’s 8 (almost 9). He has a baby brother, who he adores, but his mom Carol is battling to keep up with the demands of looking after them both. There’s no money. Neither of their dads (yes, they both have different dads) are around, there are no jobs, and even if she had a job, who would look after the kids while she was at work? Carol takes to her bed and it’s left up to young Leon to look after the 3 of them, hardly a task for a little boy. But then a neighbour notices that something’s not right and the social workers are brought in.
Leon and Jake go and live with Maureen, a carer in the foster system. She’s been doing this for years and she’s kind, loving … but also, just about at the end of her foster-mom vocation. But she’s willing to take the boys in and dote on them, giving them what they’ve lacked in the department of love and attention. The problem is though, that Jake is a white baby and Leon is a now 9 years old … and not white.
Inevitably Jake is adopted. As much as Leon tries to understand this, ultimately all he really comprehends is that the 2 people closest to him in the entire world have been taken away. He endeavours to do his best to get the 3 of them back together. And then Maureen falls ill and once again Leon has to face a change. He’s packed off to go and live with her sister Sylvia, who’s also done her stint as a foster-mom in the past, but isn’t quite as easy-going and loving as Maureen is. Leon, understandably finds it difficult to adapt to yet another new environment.
He begins to explore his new neighbourhood and together with his bicycle and his backpack (loaded with all his worldly possessions) he discovers The Allotments, and a mixed up bunch of people who are just as lost as he is. It’s the mid-80’s and being of mixed race isn’t exactly viewed as a positive thing. Somehow he gets caught up in the riots in his neighbourhood, still not understanding quite what’s going on or why his new friends are angry and why they’re being beaten up.
Told through the eyes of this broken child, My Name is Leon is a sensitive, moving and absolutely devastating book about the vulnerability of children in a system that does its best, but that somehow never quite manages to do right by all who it’s responsible for.
Kit De Waal, with the proficiency of a skilled, experienced author has constructed a poignant, sensitive, often painful novel. It’s difficult to believe that this is her debut book. Her characters are so very believable that you want to reach out and comfort them. It’s not just Leon, but so many of the people who make up his world are so damaged that one can understand why this is how he conceptualises everything around him. De Waal describes individuals who are just trying desperately to do their best; to make a life for themselves out of the exceptionally miserable cards they’ve been dealt. It’s in her telling, through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy that makes it even more shattering to the reader. Children see things simply, with no pretence. They see behind the ‘pretend’ faces and voices of adults, and they react in typical childish retaliation. But as the author so aptly describes, adults react in typically grown-up ways. We analyse, we label, and we judge.
I found this book difficult to read at times, and admit that I had to put it aside more than once. But it’s an excellent debut from an author who we can definitely anticipate great things from in the future.
Many thanks to THE Book Club (Facebook) and NetGalley for my copy of this book.