My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal is one of those books that pulls your heart out of your chest, stamps on it a little bit, then twists it uncomfortably before giving it an affectionate squeeze and putting it back where it belongs. It is one of those books that focuses on a young child, evokes all the innocence that should come with childhood, and makes you feel genuinely angry that not all children are allowed to enjoy such a childhood. It is one of those books what stays with you after you finish reading it.
The eponymous Leon is a nine year old boy. At the start of the novel, his mother gives birth to Jack, and the reader swiftly becomes aware that she is suffering from post-natal depression; what is apparent to an older reader, however, is not within the realm of comprehension for young Leon, and so we see the poor child mystified by his disappearing mother and forced to assume the role of parent to his baby brother. Early in the novel, Leon and Jake are sent to live with Maureen, a realistically heroic mother, before being separated. Be warned; this book will make you cry.
My Name is Leon has a third person narrator, rather than giving Leon himself control of the narrative, which is a wise decision; for every masterfully executed child narrator (yes, I know that sounds really sinister), like that in Orbiting Jupiter, there is one who is cloyingly sweet and generally annoying. de Waal is unsentimental in her depiction of Leon; like any young boy, and especially one in his situation, Leon is not perfect, and that makes him a far more compelling character.
The novel also does interesting things with its context, with Leon – whose father is black while Jack’s is white – making discoveries about race and its significance in 1980s Britain. The second half of the novel, as Leon becomes peripherally involved in race riots, marks a shift in the emphasis from the personal to the political. My Name is Leon, unsurprisingly from its title, is also about identity, with Leon gradually developing a sense of self: one that isn’t defined by his mother or brother.
I’d recommend this book; it is touching without being mawkish, and never becomes too painful to take. Leon is a fully-realised and sympathetic character, with a cast of fully-realised and sympathetic characters around him. It’s a book that stays with you; in an admission which may suggest I need to step away from fiction for a while, I keep finding myself wondering how Leon and Jake are doing, which demonstrates the strength of Kit de Waal’s writing.