He doesn’t seem to have any room in his throat or his chest or in his belly

My Name is Leon
by Kit de Waal

Wow. I tore through this book in one day. I laughed, I cried and I closed the book feeling informed, entertained and warmed inside.

Leon is eight when his little brother Jake is born. Their mother is struggling to support them on her own, but it’s okay because Leon loves his brother so much that he wants to help any way he can, and their neighbour helps when she can. Until it’s not okay anymore and social services have to step in. At which point, the difference in the two brothers’ ages and skin colour threatens to have very real consequences for their futures.

“The first day when Carol brings the baby home…she puts the baby on the floor in the living room and Leon tiptoes over…They watch the baby turn his head and open his lips. They watch the baby move one of his miniature hands and when the baby yawns they both open their mouths and yawn with him…All that day and the next day, the baby is like the television. Leon can’t stop watching him and all his baby movements.”

Knowing the themes of this book, I put it off for a little while because I expected it to be a tough read. But actually, it was really enjoyable. It isn’t narrated by Leon but it’s told with him front and centre, so we learn details as he learns them.

I like that despite his circumstances, Leon doesn’t fall into the obvious tropes of a problem child in the care system. He isn’t perfect, but he’s well meaning. He’s better at making friends with adults than other children, but doesn’t know that about himself. Similarly, his foster care doesn’t fit into any stereotypes I’ve encountered before.

“Leon uncurls his brother’s fist and kisses it. Jake’s trying to get out of Maureen’s arms and Leon knows that he’s seen his yellow truck on the carpet. Suddenly, Leon’s trousers are too tight and he wants a wee and his legs feel bendy and he’s very angry with Maureen. He picks up the yellow truck and gives it to Jake and tries to stand still…No-one notices when Leon goes into the kitchen. No-one notices when he takes the Golden Tin into the garden, throws the plain biscuits over the fence and stuffs seven chocolate digestives into his pocket…He wants to eat them, all of them, one after another or even together all at the same time, but he doesn’t seem to have any room in his throat or his chest or in his belly.”

But most of all, the way things fall apart for Leon’s birth family was dealt with so subtly, the decline is believable and even understandable. It’s sad and upsetting to read, of course, but it also enlightened me in how families can both reach and, for a while at least, cope with horrible circumstances. I think a lot of people’s assumptions will be challenged by this book.

And Kit de Waal knows what she’s writing about. She has spent years working in family law, sitting on adoption panels and even writing training manuals on foster care. It shows, but I hope that doesn’t prevent her from writing more novels in future on other topics.

Published 2016 by Penguin Random House.

Source: Waterstones Liverpool.