I think My Name is Leon would have resonated more deeply had I not recently read the magnificent What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor. The two books share similar themes – young boys from dislocated families, struggling to make sense of their worlds. It’s not that one is better than the other, but I think reading them in such close conjunction diluted the overall impact My Name is Leon could have had on me.
It’s certainly a heartrending read. Leon and his baby brother Jake are taken into foster care, but as a white infant, Jake proves much more adoptable than nine-year-old Leon, who is black. The brothers’ separation feels incredibly cruel, and the rawness of Leon’s pain rarely ebbs. I ached for Leon, but also sometimes felt remote from him. He’s a very monosyllabic child, particularly around his social workers, who rarely elicit more than a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ from him. Although we spend a lot of time in Leon’s head, when he does become more vocal towards the end of the book, I found myself thinking ‘no, Leon wouldn’t say that’. So there is some disconnect.
There’s also an element of predictability. Somewhere before the halfway mark, Leon moves into a new home and stumbles across a community allotment. From there, it was all too obvious that he was going to develop a love of gardening, make friends with the quirky plot-owners, and grow through his relationships with them. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading these sections, but by the time it all culminated in a riotous clash between police and black residents, I did feel like the book had wound off course a little.
On the whole though, My Name is Leon is a wonderful little book that is bound to stir emotion in all but the most hardened of readers – made all the more remarkable by being Kit de Waal’s debut novel.
[Read from 3-11 October 2016]