My name is Leon | Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon is a deceptively easy read. The brevity, simple prose, and close-up focus on physical details, and the immediacy of situations, which is done really well and very convincingly, reads as though the story is told by a child – although it’s not – and makes it seem more like a YA novel – although it’s not. So there’s a bit of authorial sleight-of-hand from the off, which put my ‘emotional manipulation ahead’ warning system on standby.

The reader is shown a world perceived by a child, but comprehends it as an adult, and the author plays on this a lot. We understand the bits of adult conversations that Leon overhears, but he doesn’t; we see the omens in his mother’s erratic behaviour, his foster carer’s failing health, and tensions between his friends on the allotments, for instance, which a 9 year old can’t compute. Likewise Leon’s increasing rebelliousness – stealing, lying, running away – which to him are logical actions in the circumstances but ‘we adults’ know to be expressions of the trauma he’s going through.

I have mixed feelings about this approach. It’s very show don’t tell / work it out for yourself; it also forces the reader to recognise what’s going on in Leon’s life when he can’t see it himself, to read the warning signs and anticipate the possible dangers ahead, which is what adults are supposed to do for children after all. It’s a good exercise in empathy and protectiveness for the adult reader, I guess. At the same time I don’t like being in the position of seeing an imminent disaster looming of which the terribly vulnerable central character is unaware, and going ‘Noooo’ while he has no idea what’s happening. This makes me uncomfortable for reasons I can’t put my finger on at present; perhaps it’s more about me than this technique’s literary merits.

The characters have a slightly cardboard cut-out feel, but that probably comes from the child’s point of view. Leon is beautifully done though; his character, his various fixations and his personal conflicts are absolutely believable. The riots and police brutality storyline that mirror Leon’s own increasing turmoil and defiance are laid on a bit thick. But sentimental old gardener that I am, I was moved (slightly against my better judgement) by Leon’s emerging aptitude for growing and looking after plants, in the absence of having his beloved baby brother to care for. It’s a story worth telling, and a horribly credible insight into a child’s experience of fostering, specifically a biracial child left behind when his white half-brother is whisked off to a new ‘forever family’ immediately. I admit my heart-strings were tugged a little – damn it – and I was glad for Leon that there was a good ending. Not a perfect happy-ever-after, but enough to know he was probably going to be ok.