My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal review: brotherly love under threat

A moving, understated novel shows sympathy for the mother of all neglectful mothers

Kit de Waal: skilfully conveys the world of 1980s working-class Britain. Photograph: Justine Stoddart.

Kit de Waal: skilfully conveys the world of 1980s working-class Britain. Photograph: Justine Stoddart.

Sat, Jun 18, 2016, 01:05


Book Title:
My Name Is Leon


Kit de Waal

Viking Penguin

Guideline Price:

The report from social services states that 25-year-old Carol Rycroft has “a high level of self-interest as opposed to the interests of her children”. This is putting it mildly. Clinically depressed, addicted to prescription pills, rejected by another ill-chosen lover, wrapped in her own miseries and possessed of “a brain like a rusty motor”, Carol is mother only in name to her two sons.

Kit de Waal’s heartrending story of neglect is told from the perspective of Carol’s eldest, nine-year-old Leon. Having survived nearly a decade in their London council flat, Leon has not only learned to fend for himself but also how to care for his mother. Even at his young age, their roles are reversed, a situation that intensifies with the birth of his brother Jake.

As Carol takes to the bed, Leon intuitively learns to look after a newborn: “All that day and the next day, the baby is like the television.” From changing nappies to feeding to getting Jake to sleep, Leon’s willingness to help his family survive is shown in all its glory through de Waal’s plain but pinpoint prose.

My Name Is Leon is a moving story of a child’s desperate desire to keep his fractured family together in early 1980s Britain. Leon’s West Indian father vanished years before, on the run from the police. Jake’s dad is little better, a married man only interested in Carol for sex. Unable to accept his rejection, Carol spirals into a depression that leaves no space for her two boys.

It is all about Carol’s own pain, which de Waal commendably puts on the page without judgment, leaving it to the reader to get angry. When social services are inevitably called by a neighbour and the boys placed in foster care, Carol runs away. Leon and Jake go to live with the matronly Maureen, a no-nonsense foster mum whose kindness helps Leon adjust to life without his mother.

De Waal offers a rounded view of the system. Overstretched social workers do their best, genuinely caring for their wards, but, in a sign of the times, the decision is made to split up Leon and his beloved brother, who is adopted by a new family. The loss of Jake hits Leon hard, but it is to de Waal’s credit that the story that follows eschews misery lit.

Survival against the odds and the kindness of strangers are central themes, with Maureen, and subsequently her reluctant sister Sylvia, helping Leon adapt. A nearby allotment also provides refuge and the introduction of surrogate father figures in the form of two warring gardeners, Mr Devlin and Tufty.

The latter’s Caribbean heritage fits nicely with Leon’s background and lets de Waal explore the wider public backdrop of the race riots across England at the time. The racism of police – “pack of you lot . . . right down the middle of the road, chanting and spear-chucking and war-dancing” – and the violence inflicted on minorities is vividly shown in a tension-filled final third.

De Waal, who was born in Birmingham to an Irish mother and Caribbean father, worked for 15 years in criminal and family law. She has been awarded the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize, the SI Leeds Literary Reader’s Choice Prize, and second place in both the Costa Short Story Award and the Bath Short Story Award.

She skilfully conveys the world of 1980s working-class Britain. We see Sylvia organising a party for the royal wedding of Princess Di. (“Pretty girl, but I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes.”) Elsewhere, Leon listens to the news on a trip to see Carol with his social worker: “On the Zebra’s car radio, it’s the same. The wedding and then the riots and the Irishman that starved himself to death.”

The public unrest is set against Leon’s personal traumas: missing his brother, Maureen’s illness, Carol’s abandonment. We see the visits she has been coerced into through her son’s eyes: “The toys are for babies, but Carol is playing with them . . . She doesn’t even notice when Leon comes in . . . She looks like she’s been crying for days and days, like her eyes are made of liquid, like she’s been asleep and had a nightmare, like she’s never been happy in her whole life.”

Crucially, there are lights in Leon’s world that help brighten the injustice of Carol, from Sylvia and her inappropriate jokes to Maureen’s dosings of sugary treats, to the friendships that eventually bloom in the allotment. Throughout, de Waal gives the story over to her hero, a voice that remains admirably free of bitterness.

Despite a life “of sad social workers and spontaneous Curly Wurlys”, Leon refuses to blame his mother with a childlike logic that puts love and family above all else: “He sits close to his mum because he belongs to her and she belongs to him.”