A beautifully written novel by Kit de Waal My Name is Leon tells of nine-year-old Leon’s struggle to come to terms with the circumstances of his life. It’s set in Birmingham where the violence of the 1981 Handsworth riots contrast with the street party planning fervour for Charles and Diana’s wedding.
At the beginning of the book Leon is living with his white mother, Carol. His Caribbean father is absent. After Carol has a baby with a different man she develops mental health problems and Leon learns to look after his baby brother, Jake, with the utmost care and love. In fact he likens his brother to the TV: “Leon can’t stop watching him and all his baby movements.” This phase in Leon’s life is not to last long, as when Carol can no longer cope, her sons are taken into care. Jake is adopted quickly while Leon remains with his foster mother, Maureen, the wonderful dispenser of Curly Wurlys.
Leon spends much of his time on his second-hand BMX bike, courtesy of Birmingham Social Services. He is free, as a nine-year-old should be, riding around the streets until he discovers a group of allotments. Here he’s taken under the wing of Tufty, who reminds him of his father, and Devlin, an Irishman. Among the burgeoning Scarlet Emperor seeds, Leon learns about a larger life than ‘family’.
The novel is told from Leon’s perspective, although, like earlier English novels such as Hartley’s The Go-Between and James’ What Maisie Knew, we know more of what’s going on than he does – the injustice of the adoption and foster care system, for example, when a white baby can be adopted and his black brother is not.
This novel speaks to me. I grew up in Birmingham and was deemed, because of my ‘slightly coloured status’, impossible to adopt. As luck would have it an Indian/English couple adopted me. Although more or less happily adopted, there was a part of me that was missing, and I found solace in the bombed-out spaces of post-war Birmingham, where the brambles and ivy were left to scramble over the bricks of old houses.
I loved reading a novel that parallels my early life, especially one written as well as My Name is Leon.
My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal is published by Viking.