Although I love a good cry, stories about kids that are forced into an adult world by circumstance, are my undoing. It’s the small details – little kids getting their own dinner (cold baked beans because they’re not allowed to use the stove); kids missing school to care for younger siblings or their parents; fibbing to hide their home situation… these are the things that make my heart ache.
So Leon, the main character in Kit de Waal’s debut novel, My Name is Leon, was crushing. Leon is nine and his mother, Carol, is not coping with the birth of her second baby, Jake. Neither Jake’s father nor Leon’s father are on the scene and their neighbour, Tina, is kind but can’t give the family the emotional and financial assistance they need –
“She walks into the sitting room and puts her hand to her mouth. She looks at how untidy Leon has been and how he has sat in front of the telly and eaten his cereal by putting his hand in the box. How he hasn’t put Jake’s nappies in the bin. How he should have opened the window like Tina does in her house and made everywhere smell of baby lotion. Leon sees what Tina sees. Why didn’t he tidy up before he asked her for any money?”
Things quickly unravel and Leon and Jake are placed in foster care with a woman named Maureen. Soon after, Jake is adopted and the boys are separated –
‘Jake is going to have a new mum and dad.’
‘Because, love. Just because. Because he’s a baby, a white baby. And you’re not. Apparently. Because people are horrible and because life isn’t fair, pigeon. Not fair at all.”
The story is written from Leon’s perspective – de Waal handles it brilliantly in the opening chapters when, after Jake’s birth, Leon’s fears and observations were well executed –
“Carol used to say sorry when she shouted at him but she forgets all the time these days so tomorrow he will take twenty pence out of her purse. Twenty pence will buy him a Twix on his way back from school and he will throw the paper on the ground because he doesn’t care.”
However, Leon’s voice is a mismatch with his actual age (which is ten), and as the story progresses, this becomes more obvious. Leon’s search for his brother, the acquisition of a bike and the discovery of a community garden required a character of ten-years-old however his age seemed at odds with what he was thinking and understanding, which was more like that of a six-year-old.
I had a few other niggles. Timelines were under-cooked – Maureen may have had a big heart but I’m not sure that Leon’s complex situation would have been resolved so easily. Also, I was confused by the character of Mr Devlin – I wasn’t sure what de Waal wanted the reader to conclude.
3/5 Loved the first half, was luke-warm about the second half (but thought the ending was appropriate).
I received my copy of My Name is Leon from the publisher, Viking/ Penguin Books UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Maureen makes Leon a bacon sandwich when he first arrives at her place.
“It tastes like the best thing in the world with soft bread and lots of meat and the sauce that drips on to the plate…”