‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal is a story of a lonely little boy lost in the labyrinth of the grown-up world that includes foster parents, social workers, and allotment gardeners in 1980s London. Leon’s absent dad is from Antigua, and his single mother struggles to look after Leon after she gives birth to a new baby by another, married, white man.
By the age of nine, Leon has already been caring for his mother and his baby brother Jake, who he adores. But as his mother’s mental health deteriorates, Leon and his brother are taken into care and Leon is passed from one foster parent to another.
While reading this novel I kept thinking of ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue. Just as in ‘Room’ the story in ‘My Name Is Leon’ is told from a child’s point of view, making the adult world seem much more confusing and terrifying for the reader. The story here isn’t quite as awful as that of Jack in ‘Room’, but Leon, too, has huge issues to deal with.
Sad as Leon’s situation might be, this isn’t a story without humor.
Leon’s observations of the grown-ups around him are frighteningly accurate and at times, laugh-out-loud hilarious. None of the people Leon meets are wholly bad; the one life-affirming feature of this novel is the complexity of its characters. Both adults and children are able to move on by losing their prejudices, improving their behavior and ultimately their lives for the better.
I also loved the descriptions of 1980s London in ‘My Name Is Leon’: there are riots and planning meetings to celebrate the Royal Wedding between Prince Charles and Diana, the most anticipated national party of the decade. The author has very cleverly intertwined these historical events into the story, which mirror perfectly the internal disorder in Leon’s mind. On one hand, Leon knows he’s safe but on the other, without understanding it, he is grieving the loss of his mother and brother, a feeling that makes him rebel against everything and everybody.
If you loved ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue, you’ll adore this heartfelt story of a small boy’s struggle to find his identity and come to terms with his new life.