Book Review: My Name is Leon

Friday 13 January 2017 by

My Name is Leon, Viking, Kit De Waal, Reading, Book

My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal

Published by Viking

A brother chosen. A brother left behind. And a family where you’d least expect to find one.

Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not.

As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile – like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.

Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we manage to find our way home.

~*~

One of the most highly praised books of 2016, My Name is Leon tells the story of Leon and his search for his baby brother, Jake. After they are taken in to care, Leon finds himself separated from his brother – because his brother is white, and he isn’t. Set in the early eighties, Leon suddenly finds himself alone and confused, surrounded by adults who he doesn’t trust. And so he decides to go and find his brother himself, and then he and Jake can go back to live with his mother.

Told through a young boy’s eyes, the world is bewildering place. It’s frightening and frustrating, and you are forever shut out of the important things. But you are also filled with purpose, and there is wonder in things that as adults we have already forgotten.

The world isn’t kind to Leon. He is torn from his family with no explanation – just mutters and whispers that they think he doesn’t understand. In order to make sense of it, and in order to find his brother, Leon goes exploring and uncovers the secret world of the allotments. He finds new friends, new reasons to keep going, but also realises that the world is much wider than he first thought.

This is a beautifully written book – raw and emotional and angry, but with bright streaks of redemption and love and hope throughout. I was captivated by Leon’s voice – his strength and vulnerability and the honesty in his story. It’s artfully done, with a supporting cast that make it only stronger. Leon is the perfect character for the narrative, despite much of the actual meat of the story continuing without him. You spend your time wondering what’s going on in the other room, what your missing, but Leon’s world is so consuming that it’s easy to get invested.

The ending is full of satisfaction. It has a brutality to it, a finality that shuts the door on Leon’s story. And yet it feels full of possibility, you put the book down feeling like you’ve met the characters in passing and they’re carrying on their lives without you. You feel lost without them. I was struck by the simplicity of the story, the careful choice of words making it all the more powerful. It is bitter and bright and all-encompassing. I really was that cliché and missed my tube stop!

This book is worth every letter of praise it’s had. Plus, Lenny Henry narrates the audio book, so you really can’t go wrong!

 

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