My Name is Leon tells the story of Leon, a nine-year-old with a black father and a white mother. His mother is heavily reliant on drugs, and as such, is unable to take care of Leon and his baby brother, Jake. Put into the foster care system, cute white baby Jake is soon adopted, but Leon is sent from one place to another, unable to settle. Leon manages his anger at losing his mum and Jake by stealing from the adults around him, hoping to save up enough money to go and rescue his mum and baby brother.
I probably would never have chosen to read this book. The story of a mixed race boy growing up in 1980s Britain doesn’t immediately fit into the mould of books I normally read. I read this through Penguin’s Bookmarks, and I’m so glad I did. I enjoyed its style and its sensitive handling of some very difficult topics. I also liked its cast of extremely relatable characters, including Maureen, who adopts Leon, Tufty, who teaches him about gardening, and of course Leon himself.
This is a story that deals with incredibly difficult issues – racism, addiction, anger, and loss. But it does so in a very accessible way. My Name is Leon is primarily a story about a young boy growing up, and it is through his eyes that we experience each of these challenging topics. It’s a story about an individual, not a manifesto, and yet it leaves you with a greater understanding of these issues than I think a manifesto might. The question of race, for example, is a subtle thread woven throughout, which is very effectively brought to the foreground in the climax of the novel.
One of the things that appealed most to me was the style – the way it was written with a slightly naive voice, as though Leon’s thoughts. It’s a wonderful example of “show not tell”, as we learn things through the narrator. We learn how Leon’s mother, Carol, is unable to cope with parenting, we overhear snippets about her relationships, but all without the narrator/Leon ever fully understanding. It’s a way of being able to really relate to Leon and his situation, and to understand his anger and desire to steal. Seeing his unconditional love for his mother through Leon’s eyes was particularly touching. Despite her failings, her inability to cope, Leon never considers giving up on her.
In amidst the naivety are some mature motifs – when Leon is given an allotment, his care for his baby brother transfers to caring for plants. There is also the question of identity – one of the first things Leon says is “My. Name. Is. Leon.” to baby Jake. And yet so many people fail to get his name right throughout the novel, and in the same way they fail to understand his needs and desires. It’s a symbol of how his identity is so difficult to nail down, both because he’s mixed race and because he has to move from one home to another.
Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon (Viking, 2016)