Book reviews, Costa Book Awards, Drama

Review: My Name is Leon

My Name is Leon is the debut novel from Kit de Waal and it’s up for the new novel prize in this year’s Costa Book Awards. It’s the first book I’ve read in the category as part of my challenge to finish the novel and new novel contenders before the prize is announced in January.

My Name is Leon

What’s it all about? 

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

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.

What’s good about it?

This is a fantastic debut novel.

There is such a strong sense of voice in this that you’ll be consumed by it immediately. It’s not a first person narrative but is childlike, applying an innocence and naivety to the text that works marvellously. De Waal uses the technique to reveal adult truths to the reader that her boy protagonist and child narrative voice don’t understand. It’s beautifully delicate and poignant at times, particularly when Leon reveals the extent of his mother’s neglect.

De Waal’s personal and professional background shines through this novel. She is mixed race, her mother was a foster carer, she worked 15 years in criminal and family law, has sat on adoption panels and advised social services on the care of foster children. This knowledge gives the narrative an authenticity that could easily slip into glib sentiment in the hands of a less astute author.

I was impressed with how De Waal painted the adult characters in this book. Carol, Leon’s mother, is flawed and troubled, unable to look after her two young sons due to her own issues. A portrayal of this kind could easily demonise Carol but De Waal offers a sensitive representation of a woman struggling with her responsibilities. Equally, when Leon meets the men in the allotment, finally discovering men of colour who look like him, it is a well-crafted depiction of community and where it can be found.

The final page tells how Leon helps to plant some unknown seeds in the allotment and sums up the essence of the book:

He picks up a packet of Take-A-Chance and tips the seeds into his hand. They are small and brown with wrinkled skin and nobody knows what’s inside. He places them carefully in the soil and covers them over. He’ll water them and look after them and hope for the best.

What’s not so good about it?

Not a lot, really.

I imagine the childlike narration may put off some readers but it works well and does sustain the novel for its 262 pages.

There genuinely aren’t any other criticisms I could give for this text. It’s uplifting, hopefully and authentic. This is a very strong debut from Kit De Waal and a novel that sets her up as one of the most exciting new writers around. My Name is  Leon is certainly a strong contender for the new novel prize.


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