The year is racing past; I can’t believe we’re well into June already, and I’m currently thinking of what books will make it in to my list of top reads for the first half of 2016. One book with a secure place is Kit De Waal’s breathtakingly good debut novel ‘My Name is Leon.’ The title and cover may not give much away, but once opened, the book is a reminder of everything the best fiction can be.
The story’s premise is simple. Nine-year-old Leon has a mother and a baby brother. They live together (except when his mother disappears and leaves them with a friend), and they love each other (though it is Leon who provides the physical caring and organisation a family with a newborn baby needs). It does not feel like much of a surprise when social services get involved and move Leon and Jake to a foster home, nor, sadly, when the cute white Jake is adopted, while his big-for-his-age mixed-race brother is left in care. The book follows Leon’s quest to reunite his family. I was half expecting a modern unbelievable fairy tale and more than half fearing an ‘A Little Life’ style trauma-fest. Instead, I found myself immersed in a story whose simplicity belies an immensely powerful sense of humanity and recent history.
Leon story is told through third person narration, showing us the world from his limited viewpoint, but with more than enough information for us to see how the same situations are interpreted and manipulated by those around him. This has the advantage of showing us how Leon views and listens to the adults around him, but it is also a powerful tool in understanding his own complex character. One moment that will stick with me is the subtle way in which de Waal presents Leon’s habit of taking money. It starts with his mother ‘Carol used to say sorry when she shouted at him but she forgets all the time these days so tomorrow he will take twenty pence out of her purse. Twenty pence will buy him a Twix on his way back from school and he will throw the paper on the ground because he doesn’t care.’ The stealing progresses throughout the novel, always calculated and aways for the most heartbreaking of reasons. I tend to avoid books with very young central characters because their narration and story-lines rarely work for me. I wouldn’t if they were all written with such pure awareness of the complexities of childhood. Leon is a completely believable boy; he could so easily fall into the delinquent stereotype, but our inner understanding of his confusion and the unacknowledged trauma of the pressure and responsibility of the first years of his life mean he is able to both conform to and subvert what we all think we know about children on the fringes of society. One of the many sections that nearly made me cry (though not one of the paragraphs that had tears rolling down my face to the extent that I realised I had to set aside the novel for non-commuter reading) is when Leon answers a question about the meaning of responsibility:
‘… it means you have to look after something and it’s always there in your mind even when you can’t see it because you’re thinking about it all the time and you have to make sure it’s safe and everything you do is about looking after that thing and making sure its all right even when you don’t want to do it. Because that’s your job.’
It’s an answer no child should be able to give, but there are children who know such responsibility and live with it every day. De Waal’s understanding of her characters (her decades of experience in foster care, adoption and family law are clearly but unobtrusively evident) mean Leon’s life and emotions ring true in a way that left me breathless. And often tearful.
As the novel progresses Leon’s story starts to intersect with the world’s wish for a fairytale existence and the sad facts of real life conflict. In other words, his own narrative climaxes at the same time as the Brixton riots and ends during a Charles and Diana wedding street party. Leon’s life may be consumed by his very private troubles, but the world moves on regardless, and he must learn to position himself in a London that has separated him from his family and labels him according to his skin colour. The final setting is ambiguous, evoking sincere hope for a future that readers already know is tarnished with irony and tragedy. ‘My Name is Leon’ may seem like a small, private story, but I believe Leon is a truly inspired fictional creation and the message of the book is important and all encompassing. It is a call to be aware of injustice, to question our received prejudices and to remember that everyone is the hero of their own life, capable of a huge, beneficial impact on the world around them. Without a doubt, one of my top books of 2016 so far.
I received my copy of ‘My Name is Leon’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.