‘…he misses the photograph of Jake and he has to close his eyes to remember it. He holds on to Big Red Bear and thinks about all the things he didn’t say to his mum. How long will it be for her to get better? When is she coming back for him? […] Will she come back? Where is she? Where is Jake?’ (My Name is Leon. p.78)
Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, My Name is Leon (2016) by Kit De Waal is a heart tugging, sad yet hopeful book. Set in England the late 1970’s – early 1980’s, Leon and his baby brother Jake are living with single mother Carol. Leon’s father is in prison and Jakes father is married and wants nothing to do with Carol or the child. Carol is terribly lonely and desperately unhappy. Struggling with deep depression, the mother’s fragile state leaves her unable to care for her children :
Leon has begun to notice things what make his mum cry: when Jake makes a lot of noise; when she hasn’t got any money; when she comes back from the phone box; when Leon asks too many questions; and when she’s staring at Jake, (p.12).
After Carol takes to her bed, Leon, at just nine years old, takes on the role of carer and parent. Through the eyes of this young boy, the reader watches his world fall apart, fragment by fragment.
Eventually the boys are taken into care and find solace in the home of Maureen, an experienced foster carer with a deep love for both cakes and children. Maureen is a lovable character who feels a deep affinity for Leon, even though Leon is highly suspicious of anyone in the care system, but when Jake is adopted, it is Maureen who picks up the pieces. It is perhaps her honesty rather than her role as parent that soothes Leon in his most difficult times:
‘Now listen carefully because I want you to understand something and I don’t say this to all the children because it’s not always true but with you it’s true so you have to believe it. And when you believe it you will stop grinding your teeth […] You will be all right, Leon.’ (p.55-56).
But when Maureen is taken into hospital, Leon is left with Maureen’s sister Sylvia, a less motherly role model than Maureen but with a desire to please her sister none the less. Their relationship is strained and often uncomfortable, but soon enough Leon finds comfort in a new friend, Tufty. Tufty is a young man who looks after a plot in his father’s allotment. The man and the boy form a friendship that grows alongside the seeds that they plant in the garden, so when they both find themselves in the midst of the Birmingham riots, they naturally come together to save each other.
This is a coming of age story unlike any other, it is not a happy ever after but hope for a child and his future.
I love this novel, it is clearly written with believable characters and honest emotions. At the start of the novel I was concerned about the character’s point of view – a third person limited perspective from the child’s perspective – but it is cleverly done. While the reader gathers glimpses of emotions from inside Leon’s head, there is still enough distance to feel the tug of the story from the outside. It is as if the reader is holding the child’s hand and experiencing his life with him as it unfolds. Brilliantly done and brilliantly written. Go Leon.