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My Name is Leon is a debut novel – but as you read it you would be forgiven for thinking this is the work of a much more experienced author. Leon is an eight year old boy whose story is so well crafted that there are times when you want to reach in to the pages and give him a hug. As you start to read this book prepare yourself for that feeling – wanting give out hugs – you will feel it often. Even the stoniest heart will be moved.

Leon lives with his mother Carol who has just had a baby, Leon’s half brother Jake. There are no fathers in the picture – just a shadow cast by their absence. Carol suffers a bout of severe depression and Leon is left to deal with his baby brother on his own. De Waal doesn’t sugarcoat any of what happens next. Social services get involved, Carol is taken away and Leon and Jake are rehoused for a short blissful period where the reader can relax because Leon is safe.

Maureen, his new foster carer is the perfect grandmother figure – loveable and flawed, steady and no nonsense. What could go wrong? Well, didn’t I mention that Leon is mixed race and big for his age? And that baby Jake is white skinned with blond locks – as the boys are put up for adoption not all things are equal and the results are devastating.

So far it sounds bleak but De Waal is such a charming writer that you want to keep on reading. The story is set in the 1980’s which gives it the perfect nostalgic charm with an appropriate smattering of references – Curly Wurly’s, The Dukes of Hazard, Action Man figures and  photographs with the date written on the back. The book changes in the second half when an older Leon gets a bike, makes the acquaintance of some local men who educate him in gardening, brawing, and politics. A newly mobile Leon hatches a plan to bring his family back together. A plan that upsets his social worker, worries the adults around him but makes complete sense to a grieving ten year old. Herein is one of the rewards from reading “My Name is Leon” – the character is so well written that you can understand his motives and outbursts perfectly.

Illustration by Supersimbo

De Waals debut novel is a surprise – probably due to the fact the De Waal is writing from her experiences and knowledge. She has worked alongside social workers in her job as a magistrate, she was born to an Irish mother who was a foster carer and her father was Caribbean. One suspects that her experience has moulded Leon and his characteristics.

I wasn’t expecting to care so much about the characters involved and was delighted by a change of pace in the middle of the book. The whole story felt authentic and offers a heartbreaking look at the breakdown of a family unit and the impact it has on child.