My Name is Leon, is about two brothers, white Jake and mixed-race Leon, who are separated in foster care. The title of the book tells us this is Leon’s story, he is going to tell us how it really is. It is book about being seen, about being heard.
It’s 1981 and Leon’s mother, Carol gives birth to Jake, Leon’s half brother:
‘My name is Leon and my birthday is the fifth of July nineteen seventy-one. Your birthday is today…I look like my dad. Mum says he’s coloured but Dad says he’s black but they’re both wrong because he’s dark brown and I’m light brown.’
Carol tries to make contact with Jake’s father, who is already married and rejects both her and the baby. This leads to the deterioration of her mental health and subsequent break down.
While Carol is having her breakdown, Leon is desperately trying to look after her and baby Jake.
‘Jake isn’t even wearing a nappy any more because it smelt terrible and all the new nappies have gone. He had to sit Jake on a towel in his basket and put some toys in with him but he can get out now and crawl all over the place and looking after Jake is getting much too hard. And they’re both hungry all the time these days.’
Eventually Leon turns to Tina, his mum’s friend and neighbour. He only wants a pound for some food but Tina comes into the flat and discovers an unconscious Carol. She calls an ambulance and Social Services and Leon and Jake are placed with foster carer Maureen. Maureen has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. Just as the two boys begin to settle, Leon senses that something is in the air, a social worker has come to visit:
‘Wouldn’t you like Jake to be in a family with a mum and dad of his own?…Leon, we’ve got a family that want to look after Jake. They want to be Jake’s new parents. Isn’t that good, Leon? Jake is going to have a new mummy and daddy…Do you understand, Leon? Jake is going to be adopted. That means he’s going to have a new forever family.’
After Jake’s adoption, the story follows Leon, the older brother and a single summer of his life while he struggles to adapt to life on his own. The story is set in 1981 when a number of momentous things were happening in the UK; IRA bombs, hunger strikes, the riots and the Royal Wedding of Diana to Charles. De Waal wanted to illustrate that while all these big things were happening, one little boy was lost and grieving and going unnoticed. But Leon has a secret plan, one day he’ll rescue Jake and his mum.
Meanwhile Maureen is taken ill and lucky for Leon he’s sent to live with her sister, Sylvia rather than a new foster placement. His social worker gets him a bike and with the bike, he gains some freedom. On one of his rides, he goes to the Rookery Road Allotments where he meets Tufty, who reminds him of his dad. Tufty teaches him about planting seeds:
‘…these plants need support. They need to hold on to something strong while they’re growing. They curl round the bamboo and then, couple of months’ time, we get some beans.’
As Leon gets to know the diverse group of strangers at the allotments, he begins to experience a sense of peace.
‘Hello spider, Hello, beetle. He looks up at the pale-blue suede sky and closes his eyes. He feels the roots of all the trees and the flowers mingling in with one another, making a giant web that sucks all the goodness and the rain up into their leaves so they can make apples and roses and all the strange vegetables that grow in the Asian shops. Leon’s going to have the best plot on the whole allotment.’
As Leon learns how to survive, by stealing things for the time he will rescue his brother, the story heads towards a dramatic climax that splits Leon from his new found friends and foster carers.
The separation of siblings was a common occurrence both in the 1980s and even recently, De Waal observed in her work. “Unfortunately, siblings are separated too often. I’ve been on adoption panels, and sometimes there is no other option.” Leon’s story is still being played out over and over in adoption services all over the UK. He will go into care: if he’s very, very lucky he will stay with the same foster carer until he grows up, but that would be unlikely. More commonly, he would move several times during his foster care.
Black men and boys are over-represented in prisons, in mental health institutions and in unemployment. Many of these men and boys have come through the care system which, often fails to replicate the best of family life. That is not to say that all family life is good. Leon would not have thrived had he stayed with his mother but when family life works for children, it works well.
Dawn Foster in a recent Guardian article asked De Waal: Given the number of children who have experienced care, why does she think there are so few novels written about their experience, and more broadly about working-class life?
‘I don’t know. I think there are gatekeeping processes at work in publishing. First, you need an agent, and you need the time to write. That’s one way you’re going to be filtered out of the system. Maybe there is a lack of confidence in our working-class stories, in whether people want to hear them? But sometimes we have to tell them, otherwise other people do so on your behalf, and that’s no good. We have a responsibility to tell our stories, and the industry has a responsibility to hear them.’
This is a powerful story, one that will probably make you cry, but don’t let that put you off. It is a story that needs to be told, and more importantly, a story that needs to be heard. The writing is exquisite, powerful, and realistic. De Waal captures the voice of a traumatised child. Leon experiences what it is like to be nine years old and taken away from a mother and brother whom you love and adore. To be left alone in a strange world where all your belongings have disappeared and living with a stranger whose house rules you have to get used to. As young as he is, Leon finds new ways to live his life without his mother and brother whilst learning to overcome unbearable loss.
My Name is Leon will be published by Viking TODAY 2nd June 2016 – thank you for the review copy
You can follow Kit on Twitter: @KitdeWaal