‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal is a story about two young children, mixed race eight-year-old Leon and his white half-brother Jake, who are taken into care in the early 1980s after their mother Carol develops serious mental health issues. While Jake is quickly adopted by another family, Leon stays behind with experienced foster carer Maureen and struggles to cope with being separated from his baby brother. When Maureen becomes unwell, he is taken in by her sister Sylvia and starts spending time with Tufty at the allotment but remains determined to find a way to be reunited with Jake and Carol.
De Waal has worked in criminal and family law for a number of years and has advised social services on adoption and foster care. Her mother was also a foster carer and de Waal has two adopted children of her own. Her extensive personal and professional experience of the social care system enables her to bring genuine insight into the complex and confusing issues surrounding adoption and fostering – an area which is rarely explored in real depth in modern fiction.
Not only does de Waal bring authenticity to the story based on factual knowledge, her writing is excellent too and she captures Leon’s perspective brilliantly without being emotionally manipulative. He overhears snippets of conversation between the adults allowing the reader to piece together the circumstances leading up to Leon and Jake being taken into care as well as the decisions taken concerning their future in the following months. Leon doesn’t always understand everything that is happening but he is often more intuitive than many of the other social workers realise. The disruption caused by Maureen’s illness is particularly devastating for Leon – he sometimes lashes out and steals money – but the time he spends at the allotment with a mixed race community, away from his social workers and without their knowledge, is a particularly formative experience for him.
The overall result is a very rounded and non-judgemental view of Leon’s situation, acknowledging the challenges faced by all of those involved. While there is a layer of social commentary in the backdrop of working-class Britain in the early 1980s, particularly where racial tensions are concerned, this aspect is never treated in a heavy-handed manner.
‘My Name is Leon’ is an impressive debut novel – poignant and realistic with engaging characters. I look forward to reading more by Kit de Waal in the future.