A brother chosen. A brother left behind. And a family where you’d least expect to find one.
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 I Thought:
It’s really difficult to describe My Name is Leon, as there are so many layers to the story. There is the underlying tragedy of Leon and Jake’s situation and their mum, Carol’s, struggle with her mental health with little support, but there is also humour in how Leon sees the world, and the array of foster carers and social workers within it.
The novel takes place in 1981, and a divided Britain of excited followers of the Royal Wedding contrasted with bubbling racial tensions that dramatically explode are pefectly written from Leon’s narrow point of view. You can imagine a child of 9 or 10 picking up on elements of what is happening in the world outside his street without seeing the whole picture.
I loved how Leon’s discovery of the allotments, and some unlikely allies, was used in giving Leon a purpose. While in foster care, and struggling at school, it was lovely to see him find a sanctuary and something at which he could excel. The system would not let Leon take care of Jake, but by planting seeds and watching them grow, he has something to care for, something into which he could pour all his love for Jake.
As the heart of the book, Leon is a beautiful character. He is trying to be a grown-up boy, but he is still too young to understand what life has thrown at him. It is so hard to see him struggling to understand, and put the pieces together in his own mind. Once you realise what he is planning to do, it is enough to make you weep.
It wasn’t hard to give this book five stars – it really is that good.
My Name is Leon is out now in paperback, published by Penguin, and it is well worth your time.
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Note: I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. all opinions are, as ever, my own.