A brother chosen. A brother left behind. And the only way home is to find him.
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 take Jake away and give him to strangers. Because 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 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 somehow manage to find our way home.
Leon, sweet adorable Leon, is an eight year old mixed race boy when we meet him. His mother has just given birth to his white brother Jake, by a different father. Carol, his mother has previously had mental health problems (which saw Leon put into temporary care) and this flares up again, first with what presents as post natal depression, before escalating into a total breakdown. Before this is discovered Leon has struggled to look after both his mother and his brother, but inevitably he’s unable to cope. When their neighbour discovers the situation she calls in social services and Leon and Jake’s life will never be the same again.
Luckily for Leon and Jake their first placement is with Maureen an experienced and kindly fosterer, but of course she, as well as they, are subject to the vagaries of the social welfare system. I have no intention of giving any spoilers so I’ll say nothing else as to how life plays out for Leon and Jake.
What I will say is that this book is peopled with a number of memorable and engaging characters that cross Leon’s path. A path complicated not only by his situation. but his age and colour. Set against the background of racial unrest in the 1980’s we are reminded that our society was not always as culturally diverse and accepting as it grew to be.
In following Leon and his story, we are reminded how resilient the human spirit can be, and how coming across the right people can help to direct one along the right path, when it could be all so easy to take the wrong one. The book is at times incredibly sad, with Leon learning to live with the guilt he carries as he believes he has failed his brother and mother; as well as fearing for his own future. It is a life lived in a bubble, reluctant to accept affection and friendship for fear of losing it again like everything else he has ever loved.
It is also a thought provoking novel, as it makes you think about how many other Leon and Jake’s are actually struggling in the real world to cope with the lives they have been handed by fate and the social care system.
I have no hesitation in recommending this book, it is not often that I’ve had to stop reading because I couldn’t read through the tears. This is an accomplished piece of writing made all the more impressive for being a debut, I’ll certainly be looking for more from this author.
I received a review copy of this book via NetGalley in a return for an honest review.