There were tears on Sunday morning – actual tears – and that’s not something that happens very often. The tears were for Leon, a child, albeit a fictional one – a boy who stole my heart and broke it a little bit.
Last week I was fortunate enough to see Kit de Waal and Jackie Kay at the Birmingham literature festival, they were wonderful. I don’t want to go on about that evening too much, despite it being amazing as I have a book to talk about, but I found both women extraordinarily inspiring, funny and moving. We had readings, poetry recitals and a lively question and answer session, alongside this, both women talked about their backgrounds and what had brought them to writing. Kit de Waal’s debut novel My Name is Leon had been on my radar for months – she is a Birmingham writer – and I always love to read local authors. Kit de Waal told us about her own background, growing up in Birmingham, becoming a mother, and sitting on an adoption panel. I was soon determined to start reading My Name is Leon as soon as I had finished One Fine Day.
I devoured the book over the weekend, it is a novel about love, identity and family, it explores the bond which exists between siblings and reminds us how home may not always be where you expect.
Taking us back to 1980/81, and an unnamed city- which as a local I recognised as Birmingham, My name is Leon is brilliantly evocative of the early 1980’s and a childhood set against the back drop of civil unrest and a Royal Wedding.
Leon is nine years old, quite big for his age, he has a brand new baby brother Jake with bright blue eyes. Jake is white, and Leon is black. Their mum Carol is beautiful, and Leon likes to take care of her and help her look after Jake. Leon simply adores his baby brother. He tells his little brother all about the world.
“My name is Leon and my birthday is on the fifth of July nineteen seventy-one. Your birthday is today. School’s all right but you have to go nearly every day and Miss Sheldon won’t let proper footballs in the playground. Nor bikes but I’m too tall for mine anyway. I’ve got two Easter eggs and there’s toys inside one of them. I don’t think you can have chocolate yet. The best programme is The Dukes of Hazzard but there are baby programmes too. I don’t want watch them any more.”
Carol is finding life hard, and over the next few months following Jake’s birth – the children are beginning to get neglected. Leon is missing school, caring for Jake himself, their upstairs neighbour Tina is called on more and more often to look after the boys.
Social services come and take Leon and Jake to live with Maureen while their mum gets better. Maureen is nothing like Carol, she’s quite old, has a belly like father Christmas and fuzzy red hair. Leon notices all the adults around him speaking in strange, quiet voices, wearing what he calls pretend faces. Maureen has fostered lots of children – she has lots of love to give, and a big gold biscuit tin, but her health is not as good as it could be, and she isn’t getting any younger. It’s quickly apparent that Carol won’t be able to look after her children herself, Leon hears mention of a half-way house in Bristol – wherever that is. After a while the social services decide it would best to have Jake adopted – ‘to give him a chance’ – no one it seems wants a black nine-year-old boy and a white baby. The separation is hard on Leon; Jake is his baby – his responsibility – he doesn’t think that he’ll be happy away from Leon who is the only person who understands how to look after him. Maureen puts a photograph of Jake by Leon’s bed – but the hole in Leon’s world is huge.
Things don’t get any easier for Leon, Maureen is taken into hospital, so Leon goes to stay with Sylvia (Maureen’s sister – who social services have approved). Leon still hasn’t heard from Jake – and he finds it hard to cope with all the anger he has inside.
“Once when he was little, he was in the park with his mum and she covered him over with a blanket. He was lying on the grass. He remembers the smell of the earth and the feel of scratchy leaves on his legs. The sky was far away and everything was still and quiet. His mum was singing to him but it was more like a whisper and his dad was there as well. His dad was reading the newspaper and he was leaning against the tree. Leon had a blue and red ball and an Action Man and they left the Action Man at the park and his dad promised to get him a new one. And he did. But that was later.”
Sylvia is obsessed with the Royal Wedding – she and her friends are planning a street party. Meanwhile, Leon loves to ride his bike fast, he also loves curly wurlys and hanging out with Tufty down the allotments who reminds Leon of his dad – and teaches him about growing things. In his red rucksack Leon puts all the things he pinches, the coins he collects which will one day help him find his Mum, and rescue Jake. During the summer evenings, there is unrest on the streets near to where Leon lives with Sylvia, a strange feeling of excitement in the air, and some of Tufty’s friends speak of violence and police harassment.
Leon has a lot of things to sort out in his head, about his mum, his brother, who he is, and where he belongs. Leon must learn to cope with his unbearable loss, and listen to the people around him who care for him.
Those of us who work with children, sometimes come home, worrying, wondering about the small people we had in our care that day. The world can be tough on children – and Leon is a heart-breaking reminder of how that world can appear to a child, and how it might feel.
This novel is poignantly powerful, and Leon is an unforgettable child character, who reminds us how vulnerable children are to the decisions that the grown ups make for them.