Kit De Waal has a big heart. Big. You just know this from reading her book. Only someone with a big heart could write such a beautiful story.
Born in Birmingham to an Irish mother, who was a foster carer, and an African-Caribbean father she also has personal and professional experience of foster care and the adoption system. This is in evidence in her debut novel ‘My Name is Leon.’
Written in the third person, but from the perspective of the nine-year-old Leon, the novel begins with Leon happily at home with his mother Carol and his baby brother Jake. Leon has had to grow up fast. His mother isn’t very good at looking after him and he is left ‘holding the baby’ literally and figuratively speaking. But he doesn’t mind. He loves his baby brother Jake. It soon becomes clear that Carol is entirely incapable of looking after her children. They are soon taken to live with a foster carer called Maureen.
All of this would be hard enough for any nine-year-old to deal with, but when Jake is taken away, Leon’s world begins to crumble. The sections dealing with the separation are heart breaking.
‘Leon uncurls his brother’s fist and kisses it suddenly, Leon’s trousers are too tight and he wants a wee and his legs feel bendy and he’s very angry with Maureen. He picks up the yellow truck and gives it to Jake and tries to stand still. Something inside is telling him to run away or to hit the lady but Leon stands still. Everything goes quiet.’
I was sobbing by this point and the pain for Leon doesn’t end there, as he fails to understand why adults never tell him the truth and why his mother isn’t coming for him, and where has Jake gone?
De Waal is never overly sentimental and the innocence of Leon’s thoughts and feelings bring such emotional intensity to this story.
We follow Leon’s turbulent life as he is moved yet again to live with Sylvie, Maureen’s sister, when Maureen falls ill. His life changes when one of the social workers (amusingly called Zebra by Leon because she has stripes in her hair) gives him a BMX bike. He goes for a ride and comes across an allotment and it is here that he will find the most unlikely friendships in Tufty and Mr Devlin. These two unique characters bring humour to the story. They also bring another element to the novel about society and how it treats its citizens. As we learn more about them, we learn how complicated the world can be for those who don’t feel they belong.
Although this novel is heart breaking, it is also funny and warm and deliciously enjoyable.
There is one part in the book where I just couldn’t’ stop laughing. Leon has a gun which is just a toy, but he thinks it is real. During a demonstration near his home in London Leon finds himself lost and is desperate for help. So he holds up the gun. Then he sees his friend Tufty and:
‘Leon raises the gun to wave and everyone drops to the floor.’ I found that hilarious, maybe it’s just me, but read in context it is very funny.
De Waal takes on many serious topics such as racism, class, alcohol and abandonment, but the book never feels heavy going and this is largely due to the wonderfully unique voice of Leon.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I simply adored it. It is my book of the year so far. I think it is going to be a huge best seller, because people will talk about this book and word of mouth will ensure it is widely read. I am thrilled for the author because it deserves to be.