In 1981 Prince Charles married Lady Diana, meanwhile nine year old Leon is a big brother to baby Jake. His mother is unhappy because Jake’s father doesn’t want to see Jake. Leon no longer sees his Jamaican father because he wasn’t too happy about Jake either. With Leon and Jake spending more and more time with a neighbour while their mother chases around after Jake’s father, Leon believes he is the only one who knows how to look after Jake. Soon Leon stops going to school regularly as he needs to tend to Jake and of course it is only a matter of time until the social workers are at the door, making plans for the two boys.
Leon and Jake go to stay with Maureen, a kindly woman who looks, to Leon, like Father Christmas. She is kind and gently lets Leon become the young boy he is again. With Jake being born to two white parents, and still a young baby, the Social workers decide that he has a chance for a ‘new’ family, the new family don’t want Leon too, and it isn’t long before the the two boys are separated. The rest of the book follows the fallout of these two major events in a young boy’s life; split apart from his family and desperately worried for his young brother.
Refreshingly the author hasn’t made Leon, who narrates his own tale, a precocious child. In fact on the whole he is often confused, unsurprisingly, by the chaos that surrounds him. He is a boy that listens at doors and misunderstands the things he hears. He is a boy who loves his bike but finds it difficult to make friends. He is boy who steals small items, one who wants to run away to find his mother and his baby brother Jake and put his family back together again. Family bonds are naturally the central theme of this book, which stops well short of becoming preachy about any subject, but whose meaning can’t be avoided when told through the crystal clear eyes of a youngster, one whose circumstances are totally out of his control.
This could have easily become a mawkish book but instead it cleverly walked the line that meant I felt enormous sympathy for Leon, who wouldn’t? But that didn’t mean I was wailing throughout the story which also encompasses wider race relations and the accompanying riots which 1980s Britain endured. Unsurprisingly Maureen finds it hard at times to help Leon not only face but learn to accept the hand fate has played and to find a way through, what she doesn’t know is that Leon is making his own way in the world down at the allotment. A coincidence perhaps but plants featured heavily in another book I read recently narrated by a child, The Museum of You, and of course their healing spirits are documented in one of my favourite children’s classics, The Secret Garden. The plants in this book open Leon’s eyes to the suffering of others, as well as giving the reader some entertainment with the various characters that spend their days tending their vegetables on the nearby allotment.
The characters make this book, not only Leon, who I couldn’t help but fall in love with, but those he describes around him. From the put upon neighbour to the myriad of social workers, to the loving Maureen and her feisty sister and the man at the allotment who reminds Leon of his father, are all conjured up in snatches, the individual scenes bringing these people to life.
My Name is Leon was a gentle yet powerful read and one that made me hope that in this day and age, decisions such as the fictional one to split the siblings because of their colour, are unlikely to happen. Although the book ends on a happy note, that isn’t a result of a magic wand which puts the world to rights, the best ending a book that tells such an important tale could have.
I’d like to thank the publishers Penguin Books UK for my copy of My Name is Leon. this review is my unbiased thanks to them. I completely understand why this book has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards for 2016.