This is another one of those books which has been cropping up on my timeline with rave reviews for months and I seem to be the only person not yet to have read it, so I was absolutely thrilled when NetGalley granted my wish and I was able to squeeze it in to my 2016 reads!
For anyone else who has not yet come across this heartbreaking story, it is about 9 year old Leon and his baby brother Jake. They are neglected by their mother, Carol, and go to live with foster mother Maureen who immediately brings colour into their life - both literally with her red hair - and metaphorically with her warmth, love and nurture.
But Jake is taken away and given to a new family - he is a baby and he is white. Leon is not.
This is a very moving story of Leon as he tries to come to terms with who he is; tries to deal with his loss, grief, anger and unhappiness; tries to understand the complicated world of adults and of family relationships and then finally, just when all everything seems to lost, finds his place within it.
The story takes place in the 1980s and the era is brilliantly evoked through the references to gifts, treats, prices, belongings, food and music. The characters use of a public pay phone outside the building in which they lived really highlighted how much communication itself has changed. Popular culture references aside, De Waal must have really done her research for this novel as it occurred to me how much must have changed in terms of child protection, law, procedure, monitoring, paperwork and even hospitals since the 1980s.
"My Name is Leon" is a very loved book by those who have already reviewed it with an outstanding average rating of 4/5 on Goodreads, but I wasn't prepared for just how overwhelming I found the opening chapters. De Waal manages to ensure that the true desperation of the boy's situation is not too harrowing by narrating it from Leon's view and as a nine year old child, his perception and description of what is happening around him allows us to feel sadness yet avoids a moral high ground or a gratuitous sensationalisation of events. It also allows us to stay firmly grounded with Leon and not become caught up in judgement and prejudice towards his mother.
The reader cannot help but fall in love with Leon. The opening of the book starts with him meeting his newborn brother and immediately being left to look after him. Unsure of what to do, he introduces himself and tells his brother all the things he thinks he needs to know.
"My name is Leon and my birthday is on the fifth of July nineteen seventy one. .....Mum's bought you a shopping basket with a cloth in it for your bed. She says it's the same basket Moses had but it looks new."
There are hints from the beginning that Carol struggles to look after Leon. Tina, her friend and neighbour, often looks after them but the exchanges Leon catches between Tina and her boyfriend reveal that this happens more often than it really should.
"when he sees Leon he always says 'Again?' and Tina says, 'I know.'"
And as Leon is only 9, he will accept Carol's word rather than realising that perhaps her decisions are more selfish, irrational or from someone who is slipping into depression.
"After a few weeks, Carol says Leon can't go to school because it's too wet and rainy."
Leon is emotionally intelligent. He is sensitive. He loves his mum and he wants to look after her. His observations capture an innocence and naivety and Waal's ability to report events through the eyes of young boy are really poignant and resonate with the reader.
"Leon has begun to notice the things that 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."
The fact that Leon knows the best routine for Jake rather than Carol is really heartbreaking and the effort he puts into looking after Jake really shows the bond between the boys - a bond that will leave Leon completely broken when Jake is taken away from him. But it's not just Jake he has to look after, it's Carol herself. And these scenes are upsetting. I had a flashback to the first time I read "Goodnight Mr Tom" to a room full of 12 year olds and that heavy silence which fell across the room as everyone realised the extent of neglect that had taken place.
I really enjoyed Leon's candid comments about the social workers.
"Social workers have two pretend faces. Pretend Happy and Pretend Sad. They're not supposed to get angry so they make angry into sad. This time, they're pretending to care about him and Jake and his mum."
But social services do move the boys to live with Maureen. And Maureen is an absolute fairy godmother. She is all that the boys need. She is gentle, caring, warm and shows intuition, initiative and sincerity when dealing with them. The mentions of touch, hand holding, hand squeezing and love suddenly crept into the pages. My favourite part of the book was in Chapter 8, Christmas Day. I was as excited as Leon as he experienced his first ever real Christmas and I was as caught up in all the magic as he was!
However, things continue to remain uncertain. There are still conversations behind closed door, on phone calls, fraught visits from officials and Leon's growing awareness that unlike Jake, he is unwanted, unloved, inconvenient and likely to be moved on or left behind. There are appearances from Carol and Leon always attempts to read so much more into their meetings than is actually there. He continues to suffer rages and outburst of anger that he tries to contain, tries to conceal but they reflect his deep frustration and unhappiness.
The story continues and although Leon is only ten by the end of the book, there is an element of coming of age to the story. The acquaintances he makes, the things with which he becomes embroiled, the conversations he overhears, all lead up to a climatic ending with plenty of moments of drama and tension. The book ends seeing Leon settled, happy and preparing to plant new seeds and sow new beginnings -both literally and metaphorically. The ending that Leon deserves and all the readers want.
This is an interesting read. De Waal explores a lot of themes, ideas and emotions. She raises questions about nature and nurture, parenthood, siblings, marriage, adoption and fostering. She raises broader social questions. I liked the fact it was told through Leon's nine year old eyes and not those of an adult as it does keep the tone lighter despite the subject matter and does keep things slightly more simplified and hinted at rather than laboured. I did wonder a few times whether it might have worked better had it been in the first person? Although writing convincingly as a nine year old is very difficult and in the close third person that she has chosen, Waal has successfully created a believable voice and Leon feels authentic in his thoughts and dialogue.
I'm glad I have read "My Name is Leon". It will stay with me. There is a lot to think about and I'm unlikely to forget Leon for a long while.
"My Name is Leon" is available on Kindle and in Hardback and will be published in paperback on April 6th 2017.
For more recommendations and reviews you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)