Tuesday 16 July 2019

A heart-breaking, heart-warming debut

Fiction: My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal, Viking €14.99

Kit De Waal brings her life experiences to her touching, insightful debut, My Name is Leon.
Kit De Waal brings her life experiences to her touching, insightful debut, My Name is Leon.

Justine Carbery

Kit de Waal, born in Birmingham to an Irish mother and Caribbean father, has written an astonishingly insightful and touching debut about a mixed-race boy, Leon, and his white brother, Jake, who find themselves in the care system in 1980's England. De Waal, who worked in family and criminal law for many years, and wrote training manuals on fostering and adoption explains how her own life experiences informed her work.

"I was brought up like that, I'm mixed race, I have adopted children, I've trained social workers. In 1981 I was living in Birmingham, where the riots were happening at the end of my road" - hence the authenticity of every word in this wonderful book.

Set in the 1980's, with Lady Di's wedding and the race riots as its backdrop, My Name is Leon is told from the perspective of the lovable nearly nine-year-old Leon (although we understand more about what's happening around him than he does).

Living in a ground floor flat next to a dual carriageway, Leon gets a new baby brother, Jake, whom he adores from the first. Carol, his young, vulnerable and completely self-absorbed mother is unable to look after the baby and Leon steps up, learning how to feed and change him. Ditched by Jake's father, overwhelmed and lacking the mental strength to look after two young children, Carol spirals into a pit of depression, leaving Leon alone to care for Jake.

Eventually, when Leon can find no more money for formula or nappies, they are taken into care by social services and Carol runs away. So Leon and Jake find themselves living with the lovely Maureen with the orange hair instead. But then one awful day the social worker sits Leon down and explains that since Jake is such a tiny baby, another couple want to be his Mummy and Daddy and that Jake will be going to live with them instead, leaving Leon behind. Heart-breaking.

The loss of Jake hits Leon hard. He worries constantly about how Jake is, and desperately wants his family to get back together. The rest of the novel centres on his attempts to make this happen. But each heartbreak is followed by another.

Maureen becomes ill and is taken away to hospital, leaving Leon in the care of her sister Sylvia. Once again he loses his home, his school, his sense of belonging. Righteously aggrieved that no-one listens to him, he turns to stealing, swearing and sneaking out.

Writing with compassion and humour, de Waal never lets the story descend into 'misery lit'; heart-wrenching, yes, but never bleak and depressing.

Leon, frustrated and angry, finds an outlet in cycling his BMX to a nearby allotment, befriending the West Indian pacifist Tufty, and the Irish curmudgeon Mr Devlin. Through them he comes to learn about the restorative power of friendship and gardening, as well as the rising racial tension on the streets of Birmingham and hunger-strikes in Northern Ireland.

De Waal creates compassionate characters, flawed, yet well-intentioned. Even Carol escapes judgement in de Waal's plain and pointed prose. Leon shines as a boy who has seen and heard too much in his short life but still retains his sense of hope. I just wanted to put my arms around him, hug him and tell him everything was going to be okay.

This novel is a real treat; warm and big-hearted, beautifully written, with lovable characters and a pacy storyline.

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