Having seen Kit De Waal speak at a recent Society of Authors online event, I bought her book My Name is Leon, which is her ‘breakthrough novel’.
An outstanding example of fiction which has emerged from real life experience, this book represents a powerful way to open up the issues of racism, adoption, family breakdown, mental health issues, and the way our society deals with all of these – from the point of view of a small boy.
I feel that the book I can best compare this to is Room by Emma Donoghue, because there, too, the first person narrator is an innocent child, and the sheer simplicity of this innocence presents to us a stark challenge, and sets the cruelty and thoughtlessness of the adult world in sharp relief.
My Name is Leon is set against the backdrop of the race riots in Birmingham in 1980s Britain and I would like to think that the attitude of the adoption authorities has changed since then, especially in regard to the policy of separating siblings and half-siblings when finding foster care and adoptive parents.
This book totally engages us in the heart and mind of Leon, eight years old as the story begins, and how he feels about his mother Carol , who has severe and enduring long term mental health difficulties, which make her unable to look after her children. Mixed-race Leon has begun to see himself as a carer for his mother, and his (white) baby half-brother brother Jake, with his dual advantage of being a baby and being white, is soon taken up for adoption. Through it all we see the adults involved in trying to help the situation, often constrained by the system they serve. We can see that they are, most of them, doing their very best; yet how can they work against the ingrained racism that makes the whole process so painful for a mixed-race child like Leon?
We see the goodness of Maureen, Leon’s kind and patient foster-carer, and her sister Sylvie; and we squirm as we read the conversation the man from the social services has with Leon. He asks all the questions the system requires him to ask; yet he never gains insight into Leon’s true hopes and fears.
A moving and sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes uplifting story, this book is highly recommended.