Book Review: 'MY NAME IS LEON', by Kit De Waal.
‘My Name Is Leon’ is a heart-rending tale illustrating the profound and merciless impact on young children hit with social services intervention and the subsequent foster care process. Set in London during the early 1980’s, we discover how 9-year old Leon and his baby brother Jake come to be fostered. Leon has a different father to Jake. While their mother Carol and Jake are white, Leon is mixed race. Leon’s father Bryon, of black Caribbean origin, is in prison. Jake’s father, Tony, wants nothing to do with Carol or the children. And the mentally ill, chain-smoking Carol is just unable to cope. So the brothers find themselves fostered by Maureen, an older lady who has big red hair and even bigger belly. But the brothers are to be separated. Because there is a family who wants to adopt Jake for life. Just Jake. Because Jake is ‘white’. And Leon is not. And it’s difficult for social services to find families willing to adopt ‘black’ children. But Leon has looked after Jake before. He even looked after his mum. So why can’t they all go back to being a family together again instead of being separated?
It is a tale that deserves to be told, and proves a riveting read. The story gains in momentum, evoking a resonant sense of emotion and melancholy, right up to its conclusion. However, the subject matter is such it is always likely to tug at the heart strings. Hence, placing sentiment to one side and adopting a critical eye, there are one or two aspects identified that may have been addressed in terms of narrative composition and quality. While not written in the first person, the story is nevertheless told from the point of view of Leon. The trend of employing a ‘child-narrator’ and a story told in ‘child-speak’ is sometimes indicative of a veiled attempt at masking inferior levels in the quality of the writing. That isn’t wholly the case in this book, but inconsistencies are noted where sometimes the language used is befitting a 5 or 6-year-old, but at other times more complex vocabulary is employed. Additionally, there is a lingering sense of several unresolved subplots by the end. For example, Leon’s thieving habit is never tackled. Did he return all the stolen money and goods? During the confrontation between the police and Afro-Caribbean men, it’s never explained what Mr. Devlin, a white Irish man, was doing there. Or exactly what happened to Mr. Devlin’s family and teaching career in Brazil. And did Tufty and his friends get justice for Castro? Etc.
Having said that, it is a deeply moving and absorbing story, and the book holds itself together very well. The author uses her own personal experiences and knowledge of her work in criminal & family law and adoption panels to good effect. And clearly a lot of work has gone into this. An accomplished read.