My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal
|My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ruth Ng|
|Summary: Heartbreaking but brilliant - you might need a tissue or two, but you really won't regret reading this beautifully written book.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: June 2016|
|External links: Author's website|
Shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2017
Everything that is precious to Leon gets taken away. His Action Man toys, his home, his mum, and his brother. The world seems utterly unfair, and so he sneaks 20p here, and 50p there, out of people's purses, whilst building up a rucksack full of all the things he's going to need when he finds his baby brother, and reunites his family. Through all his planning he still manages to find enjoyment in small things, like a Curly Wurly, or riding his bike, or planting seeds with his new friends on the allotments, but how will he cope when he finally faces the truth of his new life without his family.
I really, really enjoyed this book, although I'm not sure that 'enjoyed' is quite the right word to use since it was, at times, quite a harrowing, upsetting read. Leon is utterly believable as a character. He is a very natural little boy, and the writing lures you into his head, and his heart, until you find yourself feeling the pain of every perceived slight, every broken promise that he endures. The story doesn't throw the best light on 1980's social services, although everyone dealing with Leon always seems to have the best intentions. The book begins happily enough, with the birth of Leon's baby brother, Jake. Leon is mixed race, but Jack has a different father and is white. This means nothing to Leon, of course, but it impacts a great deal on their future. At first, everything seems fine and normal, and Leon plays the role of a helpful older brother. But slowly we see his family starting to fall apart, and we get a sense, behind Leon's apparent capabilities, that his mum is far from well. She tries, desperately, to entice Jack's father to be a part of his life, but he has a family of his own already and isn't interested. Leon's father, meanwhile, is in prison. Although Leon tries his hardest to take care of Jake himself, and protect his mum, there comes a day when he has no more money, and his mum hasn't left her bed in days and has wet herself, and there are dirty nappies everywhere and nothing left to eat. When he asks the lady upstairs for help, social services are called in, and he and his brother are put into foster care.
The book is written in an extremely readable style, and I found myself tearing through it, eager to see what would happen next to Leon. Leon is very likable as a character, and even when he's being naughty or demonstrating what seems to be terrible behaviour, we are always privy to his thoughts, and his history, and so understand where his anger and frustration is coming from. Everyone felt very real to me, thoughout the book, and as well as Leon himself I also really enjoyed the characters of Maureen and Sylvia (who take on Leon's foster care and different stages of the story). There seem to be many parts to the story, yet I read it quickly and with ease and it is well paced at each stage. I especially enjoyed when Leon discovers the allotments, and the various characters he meets there.
It's a very moving story. Set amongst the 1980's race riots and Charles & Diana's wedding it shows how the future of this abandoned mixed race child was balanced on a knife-edge, and just the slightest nudge either way, just one different encounter with a carer, could have sent Leon tumbling into an entirely different future. I felt very emotional reading it, seeing both Leon's difficulties, how very hard his life was and is, as well as the enormous difference that a good foster carer could make in his life. When Maureen, and then Sylvia, fight on his behalf I have to admit to wiping away a few tears. I felt utterly caught up in this little boy's story, and I was rooting for him all the way. It could have been incredibly bleak, dealing with his mum's mental illness and his grief at the loss of his baby brother, and yet although it is heart-breaking it does also, somehow, manage to lift your spirits too as you read. I think having the child's view allows for elements of humour, and that lifts the book from being too depressing.
So, this is one of those ones that is awkward to recommend, since I felt it was truly a beautifully written book and definitely worth a read, yet the subject matter is also desperately sad at times. Just take my word for it, grab yourself a few tissues, and when you've finished keep an eye out for whatever Kit de Waal may write next as she is definitely one to watch.
If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood.
You can read more book reviews or buy My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal at Amazon.com.
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