2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Kit de Waal, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 264 pages; 2016.

Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon wins the accolade of being the most bittersweet novel I’ve read so far this year. This delightful story about a mixed race boy going into foster care had me laughing and crying, often on the same page. It’s the kind of book I want to press into everyone’s hands, whispering the words, here, read this it really is that good.

A new life in foster care

Set in the UK in the early 1980s, the story is written in the third person but presented through the eyes of Leon, a nine-year-old boy, who lives with his mother and his newborn half-brother, Jake. But not all is well. Leon’s mother spends a lot of time in bed and seems uninterested in her new baby, leaving Leon in charge.

Eventually, Leon and Jake are taken into care. They are fostered by an older woman, Maureen, who is kind-hearted, loving and able to provide a stable environment for the brothers. The boys thrive.

But when Jake is 10 months old the brothers are split up: Jake is adopted by a young white couple, while Leon, who is too old and the “wrong” colour, is left with Maureen. Leon begins to understand he’s been abandoned: he might not see his beloved brother again (despite promises to the contrary), his mother has effectively deserted him (she’s in a rehabilitation clinic) and he no longer has any contact with his dad (who ran off when he was a youngster).

He’s a good kid though. Aside from some light-fingered thieving (money out of Maureen’s purse), he settles into his new life — only to have things up in the air again when Maureen falls ill. This is where Maureen’s older (and slightly rougher, for want of a better word) sister, Sylvia, steps into the breach:

There are too many things that Leon doesn’t like and he’s made a list of them in his head.
Sylvia.
Sylvia’s home.
Having to move to Sylvia’s house even though they said he could stay at Maureen’s house but they lied. Sylvia only stayed one night in Maureen’s house then she said she was sick of it and she was going back to her own house and he had to go with her.
The sheets on his new bed in Sylvia’s house. They’re pink.
The way Sylvia keeps going to visit Maureen in the daytime when he’s at his new school.
His new school. Again.
Sylvia calling Maureen ‘Mo’ all the time or ‘Our Mo’ to leave Leon out.
Nobody letting him talk about Jake. Maureen would let him talk about Jake and she would join in.
No one remembering that he’s got a brother.
[…] His mum not coming to get him.

When Sylvia later gives Leon a bike a new world of relative freedom opens up to him. He regularly cycles to the local allotments, where he finds a father substitute, Mr Burrows, a black man, who takes him under his wing and shows him how to plant vegetables and grow things. But even in this seemingly safe environment, there are dangers lurking, especially if you’re a nine-year-old boy caught up in events larger than yourself…

Accomplished debut novel

My Name is Leon is Kit de Waal’s first novel. Not that you’d know it. Her writing is accomplished. She really taps into the mindset of a young boy, caught between two worlds, who is smart and kind and emotionally savvy, but who is completely vulnerable to forces outside of his control. Even when he starts to do naughty things, you can’t help but love him, to want to reach into the book to help him and set him on the straight and narrow once again.

And the characterisation is superb, not only Leon, but his mentally frail mother, Carol, who just can’t get her act together; the vast cast of “anonymous” social workers, who hold Leon’s future in their hands; the large-hearted Maureen, who loves Leon like her own, and her rough-and-ready sister Sylvia, who comes to feel the same way; and Leon’s allotment friends, who become much-needed role models and mentors.

The scene-setting is perfectly pitched, with subtle references to events of the era, such as the royal wedding between Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles, and the race riots in Toxteth and Chapeldown, providing a proper sense of time and place.

The machinations of the fostering system and the role of social workers are expertly conveyed, perhaps no surprise given that de Waal has worked in criminal and family law, and has sat on adoption panels and written  training manuals on adoption and foster care. Her inside knowledge makes Leon’s tale all the more authentic — and heart breaking.

Perhaps the only flaw in the novel is that the plot occasionally feels laboured, but that’s a minor quibble for a book that is so full of spark and love and heart. This is the kind of story that leaves a marked impression on the reader. It’s funny, bittersweet and emotional, but it also has a feel-good factor. I loved its endearing qualities and the way in which it so perfectly captures a complicated world through the eyes of a child.

My Name is Leon was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa First Novel Award and the Desmond Elliot Prize. It has also been shortlisted for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, the winner of which will be named at the end of this month.

This is my 3rd book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award

If you liked this, you might also like:

Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey: a heart-breaking tale of a young girl, growing up in Dublin, caught in the fallout of her family’s disintegration.

Of A Boy by Sonya Hartnett (published in the UK/US as What the Birds See): a five-star read about a young boy being raised by his grandmother in suburban Australia in 1977.