Durham Book Group: My Name is Leon

Our reading choice for September was Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon, the second book we’ve read as a group that focuses on children in the care system, the first being Jenny Fagan’s The Panopticon; both popular choices.

The book is set in the early 80s, told through the eyes of the perceptive and observant Leon. Leon’s Mum’s new relationship has broken down following the birth of his baby brother Jake, resulting in a decline in mental health and an inability to look after her boys. Jake and Leon are put into the care system and Jake is quickly adopted as a white baby into a white family. Leon is sent to live with foster carer Maureen. Leon’s Mum Carol is white, his own Dad Byron is from the Caribbean and Jake’s Dad Tony is white too. Leon views Jake’s adoption as an unbearable loss and eventually, as a rejection of himself as a black child.

I found it a heart-breaking story; I had to stop reading a few times to have a good cry and one or two people in the group did the same. It’s sad, poignant, funny, filled with lovely ordinariness, wonderful characterisations, breathtakingly shocking moments, injustice and insensitivity, grief, loss and is ultimately a fabulous testament to the power of love.

As a group we admired de Waal’s superb writing style; she makes it look so easy. The story flows, with subtle shifts and sub-themes. Characters are authentic and Leon’s child voice is perfect, as is his adoption of an adult stance and mistrust of his social workers. We felt the story wasn’t over-sentimental or gushing and admired the pared back writing that delivers a powerful message, chiefly that Leon will find a caring substitute family in the range of odd characters he encounters in the allotment near his foster home. We loved Maureen his foster carer and her struggles to maintain her precarious health while providing Leon with a firm, fair and loving foster home balanced against the seeming indifference of the various social workers he encounters. De Waal doesn’t hold back from portraying the child care system in a poor light and she allows her characters to take the system and those working in it to task when they deliver meaningless platitudes to a little boy who is desperate to find his Mum and baby brother as his loss is so powerful and all-consuming.

Group members praised de Waal for her accurate portrayal of ‘salt of the earth’ foster carers and her focus on the social and political perspective in the struggles of black people in the 80s and their treatment by those in authority positions, whatever their age or social position. We also admired the fact that de Waal makes Leon’s story a search for his Mum and a gradual understanding of her frailties, allowing him to work things out for himself with the acceptance that she does love him but she just can’t look after him or his brother.

A beautiful tender story. Lovely stuff.

This book is a Durham Book Festival tie-in and as a NWN book group we’re offered reduced price tickets to hear author Kit de Waal speak about her work on Sunday 9 October in Durham.

Our next book choice is Pat Barker’s Regeneration which is the Durham Book Festival’s Big Read. We’ll be discussing it at our meeting on Monday 10 October. Hope to see you there.