I came across this book completely by coincidence. I had an awkward gap between meetings and seminars at the London Book Fair and I saw that Kit de Waal was speaking at the time. I knew she writes for The Guardian occasionally, so I decided to trot along to the talk. It was interesting enough for me to buy her debut book My Name is Leon.
I absolutely loved the way this book was written. It tells the story of a nine-year-old boy, Leon, whose mother is unable to take care of him. The narration is from the perspective of the child – and it is very well done. One really feels as if one was returning to the passions and worries of a nine-year-old. The affection he feels for his mother, his tendency to pocket small change and his fondness for action men figures and his bike all ring very true.
The novel feels incredibly realistic – it is set in Birmingham in the 1980s, at the time when the author was growing up there. Kit de Waal’s mother was a foster carer, and de Waal has worked for many years as a magistrate advising social services on the care of foster children.
But unlike many works of literary fiction these days, Kit De Waal’s novel is not just heartbreaking, but genuinely uplifting. There is plenty of hope for a better future, and crucially plenty of love depicted in it.
It was the psychology of a young child that seemed for me to be the most unique aspect of this book, but I noticed that many of the reviewers focus mainly on the political background of the novel, the Handsworth Riots in Brimingham in 1981. In some ways: the distinction between those two aspects of the novel is a false one. Personal and political – as in most human lives– are interwoven: it is racial discrimination, after all, that separates Leon (who is mixed race) from his younger brother (who is white) during the adoption process. And arguably it is the overcoming of differences that saves Leon’s life in the end.
This book is definitely one of the most enjoyable and thoughtful pieces of fiction I’ve read this year. Highly recommended!