Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

My Name is Leon – Kit de Waal

Contemporary Fiction 4*s
Contemporary Fiction
4*s

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.

First Published UK: 2 June 2016
Publisher: Penguin/Viking
No of Pages: 272
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Author:

A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

26 thoughts on “My Name is Leon – Kit de Waal

  1. This one sounds like a really interesting look at some important social issues, but from a different sort of perspective, Cleo. Leon sounds like a well-developed character, and that’s hard to do for child characters. It’s often hard to get them right. I’m glad you liked this as well as you did.

    1. I do like books that look at important social issues from a non-preachy standpoint and this book is a good example of that – I would say I tend to steer clear of child characters because they are incredibly hard for the author to make the voice feel authentic, Kit de Waal did a great job.

  2. Lovely review! I do hope we’re past the stage of deciding where kids should go on the basis of colour, but I wonder! Must admit when I worked with young boys some of the decisions social work reached about them used to baffle me – they always had the best of intentions though. Sometimes there’s no right solution, I suppose…

    1. Thank you – I think you’re right these types of decisions are made with good intentions and after all these children have already been given a tough hand in life. I was glad that the author gave Leon an accurate feeling voice.

  3. I am drawn in by the story of siblings separated because of race, and reminded of a time when that was a regular social work practice (giving the children a race to identify with). Thankfully, in later years, the sibling bond became more important in making decisions.

    Thanks for sharing a book that I feel compelled to read now!

  4. I think I need to read this book. The year it’s set is interesting to me. My sister was adopted in 1980 (she had a white mother and a black father) and it was no problem for my (two white) parents to adopt her. But only just 3 years later, when my parents wanted to adopt again, the rules had changed, and the only reason they let us adopt my brother (who had a black mother and a white father) was because we already had one black child in the family. I know they wanted to try to place children in homes with similar backgrounds and cultures, but I can’t help but think that loving homes are best, no matter what the culture/background/colour…

  5. This does sound powerful but also think it would tug at my heart strings (the type of books I often avoid). I hope you are right about the system not separating siblings but I think I am more pessimistic with what I know of the system. Maybe the powers that be should read the book and learn something?

    1. It is a tough read but more so because the author doesn’t hit you over the head with the issue – it is a story first and foremost! I am not close enough to that type of policy to know how it works today but I think it would be wonderful if those who made the policies read the book!

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