Review: My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal @KitdeWaal @PenguinUKBooks

My Name Is Leon

Author:  Kit De Waal

Release Date:  June 6th 2016

Publisher:  Penguin Books

Pages:  272


Book Despository |Waterstones|Wordery |

It’s 1981, a year of riots and royal weddings. The Dukes of Hazzard is on TV and Curly Wurlys are in the shops. And trying to find a place in it all is young Leon.

Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, a belly like Father Christmas, and mutters swearwords under her breath when she thinks can’t hear. Maureen feeds and looks after them, and claims everything will be okay.

But will they ever see their mother again? Who are the couple who secretly visit Joke? The adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing pretend faces. They are threatening to take Jake away and give him to strangers. Because Jake is white and Leon is not. 

As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile – like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.

Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we somehow manage to find our way home.

If you want a read that pulls at the heartstrings, makes you weep and hug your own children that wee bit tighter then this a book for you.  This book highlights the impact, adult’s behaviour and actions affect and change a child’s psyche – for better or worse.  During these years’ children develop a sense of the person they are going to become, they learn appropriate behaviour, empathy and appropriate boundaries.  They learn the social skills that will carry them through life.  This book examines the implications of parental abuse, racial undertones and a little boy who is struggling to find his place in the world. 

The cover of the book is absolutely perfect. Leon is angry, with the world, with his mum, with his dad and more heartbreakingly, with himself.  We are first introduced to Leon when he is eight and living with his mum Carol and his little brother Jake.  The racial undertones are highlighted significantly early on – even within Leon’s family unit.  Jake is different from his big brother.  Jake is white and blonde haired.  They have different fathers.  Carol is an extremely complicated character and unfortunately one I couldn’t feel empathy for.  She is completely delusional about the fact that Jake’s father will join them and be a proper family.  She leaves her baby with Leon whilst she spends all her time chasing this man, leaving two vulnerable children alone without adult supervision- the woman is categorically unfit, and it only gets worse from there.  Carol is the kind of pathetic woman (I’m sorry but this is how she comes across) that needs to have a man in her life in order to be happy.  Jakes father showed his true colours and made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t interested in playing happy families with Carol and her boys.  Well if that’s what he wants then fuck him.  Absolutely his loss.  Carol had two amazing children and in the end that just wasn’t enough for her.  Yes, some mums struggle, and I guarantee all mums find it hard, but you don’t just have a meltdown and stay there.  You brush yourself off, pull those pants up high and get on with it.  Your children should be your world not an option to pick up and down whenever you feel like it.  There’s no love as pure as that of your child, cherish it. 

Carol just gives up.  Leon ends up constantly caring for his brother and his mum.  It’s too much, getting up with him in the night, making his bottles (the hot water), changing his nappies, feeding him, lifting him in and out of highchairs and prams.  There is just too much scope for disaster.  Then comes a day when there’s no money in his mums’ purse and no nappies or food left and he ventures upstairs to his mums’ friend, Tina.  After saying enough is enough Social Services get involved and Leon and Jake find themselves temporarily fostered with the wonderful Maureen.  Unfortunately, or Fortunately (it depends on your perspective) Jake is adopted by a loving family and Leon is now desperately alone in this big unfair world. 

The empty sound in the house is louder than Jake crying for his bottle. It’s louder than his laugh. Louder than his baby drums. And if Leon turns round and looks at Jake’s cot in the corner of the room, he knows that he will get angry with Maureen so he picks at a scratch in the wallpaper and puts the pieces in his mouth. They taste of fish fingers.

Maureen is one of those gems you find in the world that deserves all the praise.  She is worth her weight in gold.  She has fostered vulnerable children most of her adult life and she deserves all the credit.  She gives up her life to look after these unfortunate children and offer a little bit of stability in an otherwise tumultuous world.  She is the first one to truly care about his wellbeing and its heart-warming to see the relationship between them develop and flourish. 

This story is written in Leon’s point of view and it is gut wrenching.  How can a child understand that what his mum put him through isn’t normal?  He goes off the deep end when his little brother, Jake is separated from him.  Quite literally a domino effect.  I think that if it had been possible for Jake to stay with Leon he would have felt purpose and a sense of they were in it together, and they would survive together.  The end result is that he is constantly stealing, he lies, his school work suffers, and he has unrelenting amount of anger that he has no healthy outlet for. 

The story takes place in the 1980’s a time which the race battle was coming to a head and this is important in Leon trying to discover what his place in the world is.  There are riots in the streets and this is a direct parallel in Leon cycling around the streets and spending time with Tufty (A man of African descent) that helps him feel wanted and included and helps him work out his racial identity. 

My Name Is Leon is a story of neglect, racial struggle and a child’s heartbreak.  De Waal has given meaning and a voice to many nameless children, ones who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. She has produced an important piece of fiction in the ongoing conversation that needs to be had in regard to racial identity in children. 

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