“That doesn’t make sense” a statement as familiar to those who know a small child as the question “why?” and yet, increasingly, far from being phrases that adults placate, these observations and questions offer a straightforward perspective on what can often be a confusing world for both adults and children.
Rarely have I seen this poignant delicacy of understanding captured in fiction – Emma Donoghue’s Room or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – as it was presented in My Name is Leon, the surprising, funny and at times heart breaking debut novel from Kit de Waal. Whilst the book is deliberately short, it concerns a child after all and attention spans must be adapted accordingly and indeed written in language which is so clearly that of the eight year old protagonist, the subtext and wider world of the story are startling obvious to adult readers making this a perfect crossover novel.
A story set in the 1980s, My Name is Leon explores issues surrounding family, the bonds between siblings, the social and foster care system in the 1980s and the surprising propensity of children to survive during times of adversity. Beginning with the birth of Leon’s little brother Jake, the reader is instantly introduced to the fiercely protective, unquestioningly loving big brother that Leon is. A boy who is amazed by his tiny new sibling and who sees it as his responsibility to guide him as he grows. As the novel continues and Leon and Jake’s mother’s health issues become clearer it quickly becomes evident that Leon has taken on this role in more ways than just as a big brother.
Torn away from their mother after one incident too many, Leon and Jake end up being taken into care, where they are looked after by Maureen. The boys are happy there, but then, hearing the adults talk, Leon realises that Jake is about to be given away to strangers… because Jake is white and Leon is not. Suddenly, those differences which have been referenced but not overtly dwelt upon become all the more apparent.
Life for Leon is going to be very different than life for Jake but that doesn’t mean that he will ever stop being his brother.
My Name is Leon not only portrays with a stark honesty which is enhanced by de Waal’s narrative choices, the foster care system of the 1980s but also attitudes towards race, opportunities and limitations associated with race and an unshakeable sense of courage displayed by a very brave boy.
Leon might be a boy who has lost everything: his mother, his father, his brother, his toys, his home, but as long as he doesn’t lose heart, aided by the kindliness of the people he meets along the way he may just be alright…
His name is Leon, he may be small, but he is mighty and he is amazing.
My Name is Leon is out now, published by Viking.