My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal
By Helena McNish, on 4 May 2017
Kit de Waal’s enchanting debut novel My Name is Leon has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott prize. This achievement is well deserved as, from the first chapter, I was engrossed in the observant perspective of eight year old Leon. His narrative voice evokes the innocence of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, allowing the sensitive issues of racism, the 1981 riots sparked by police brutality and the Irish republican hunger strikes, to be presented in a sensitive, thought-provoking way, adding additional layers of complexity to the story.
The book opens with the birth of Leon’s brother, immediately demonstrating his mother Carol’s inability to raise her children, as she steps out for a cigarette leaving the baby in Leon’s care. However, de Waal describes this scene neutrally, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about Carol’s behaviour. Employing Leon’s perspective allows de Waal to refrain from overt judgement of her characters throughout the book. The host of flawed figures are described with great compassion, balancing their shortcomings with exploration of their struggles and hardships.
As the story continues, Leon’s circumstances become increasingly heartbreaking as he is placed into foster care and his brother is later adopted by another family. Leon is devastated by his separation from Jake, and struggles to understanding why his mother cannot take care of him. Yearning for his biological family, Leon’s anger builds throughout the novel, manifesting in petty thievery and minor property damage. Thankfully, de Waal surrounds Leon with well-intentioned characters who develop into parental figures. Most importantly, Leon is gifted with a genuinely loving foster mother, Maureen, who does all she can to ease Leon’s pain and keep him in contact with his family. Maureen becomes the voice of the reader’s outrage and frustration at social service’s shortcomings, Leon’s parents’ failings, and the racial injustice Leon faces at that time as a mixed race child.
Kit de Waal’s Irish and Caribbean heritage, and her many years of experience in family law, foster care and adoption panels, provide immense credibility to her novel. For this reason, Leon’s voice feels truly authentic and completely immerses the reader in his perspective.
My Name is Leon is an ultimately hopeful and heartwarming tale written in simple, beautiful prose. It is a story of love, friendship, family and childhood, exploring complex issues of race, class, and cultural change. It is truly a worthwhile, enjoyable read.
I completely fell in love with Leon’s story and have no doubt you will too.
My Name is Leon is published by Viking