My Name is Leon, by Kit de Waal, is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time, and one of the most difficult to read. The eponymous Leon is an eight-year-old boy living in the UK in the 1980s. He and his baby brother, Jake, have to be taken into care early in the story because of their mum’s drug use and complex mental health problems. The problem is that, while as a little white baby Jake has a good chance of being adopted quickly, Leon does not. Plenty of people want Jake, but no-one wants Leon, who is older and mixed-race. The story is told in third person, but from Leon’s point of view. Before I crack on with my thoughts, I just wanted to mention that I found this very hard to read as a) a person who is professionally involved in child protection and safeguarding and has seen a few things, and b) the child of a parent with complex mental health issues. I imagine it would have been far more difficult had I been through the care system myself. Not exactly a trigger warning, but something to bear in mind if that’s likely to affect you.

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Leon’s narrative voice is incredibly effective. It reminded me quite a lot of Lizzie’s voice in Man at the Helm, not in personality but in terms of presenting information that the reader can understand though the narrator does not. A small example: in the very early stages of the book, Leon’s mum Carol is ranting about “that cow” and also “that girl” and how eventually things will work out and they’ll all be living together as a family. Leon spends the rest of the evening worrying about how they’ll fit a girl and a cow into their flat. It’s an effective use of a child narrator. De Waal does something else interesting with the voice, too–as Leon’s experiences with social services increase, we start to see him have greater insight into things he hears. Not insight into his mum’s behaviour, which he persistently believes is fine, but insight into the machinations of professional services. He understands the Pretend faces that social workers put on when they need to communicate bad news, for example. I think it’s tricky to demonstrate character development when you’ve got a fixed narrator, especially one who lacks self-awareness because he is a young child. It is done very subtly here, and you could see Leon’s growth.

This is the very first book involving child protection that I’ve read in which I could actually credit the behaviour of the professionals as realistic, at least according to my experience. After they are taken into care, Leon and Jake initially stay with a foster carer named Maureen who is kind and friendly and flawed and who really, really loves them. Maureen is like every foster carer I ever worked with, who all (at their core) had roughly the same personality. She gets a bit too attached and sometimes she’s over-jolly as a coping mechanism, but she also lets Leon behave like a child for maybe the first time in his life, and she’s good at judging what is normal misbehaviour and what is the result of trauma. Maureen is extremely human, and she comes off the page in an incredibly vivid way. I generally stop reading these child-in-need novels if there is no competent adult around to help them, because it’s just too distressing, and in Maureen’s case I had absolute faith that she would fight furiously to keep Leon and Jake safe and well. She does not have to deal with any of the complexities that social workers or even nurses and teachers deal with, so she can just love Leon and Jake and look after them and get angry with everyone who does not love them as well as she does. (There is also, for a while, a warm and competent policewoman). I was incredibly reassured by Maureen.

Despite how reassuring I found Maureen, it is devastating to watch Leon constantly talking himself into believing his mum would be a good parent if the social workers would only let her be. After his mum has been away for a year and Maureen has been loving and looking after him, a single visit from his mum (in which she complains about how hard it’s been for her since Jake’s dad left, and tries to take the only photo he has of his baby brother) makes him angry with Maureen all over again. It is so sad. It is so difficult to read. It is also true of many situations that I have been involved in. Leon is resentful of almost all the professionals involved in his situation. I have always been plagued with guilt for weeks or months after helping to remove a child from their family, even though that only ever happens with good cause, and Leon’s viewpoint is a good demonstration of why. He can’t see why they intervened and took him and Jake into care. For the first section of the book, seven-year-old Leon is acting as the primary carer for both Jake and his mum Carol, and he thinks that the social workers just intervened because he wasn’t doing a good enough job. We get enough glimpses of Carol to see that she really can’t look after the boys. It’s easy for the reader to see that, even though we’re seeing her through Leon’s eyes. The same is true of Maureen-she is meant to be a short-term carer and ends up looking after Leon for much longer than normal, because no-one else will take him and she refuses to let him go into a home. That is hard for her. Leon has no idea that it’s hard for her, but we are still able to tell. I am always impressed when an author can convey an adult level of information through a child’s voice–I’ve seen it done very badly before, and I think it must be challenging. Here it was just fantastically done.

Leon is a convincingly complex child. He is warm and caring and loves his baby brother more than anything else in the world. He stumbles into some allotments and ends up developing a love for gardening (I am a huge believer in the restorative power of gardening). He’s also angry and he starts to steal things and plans to run away from home. Leon is not a straightforward character, and he doesn’t get to have a straightforward story. The book encompasses poetry and plants and racial discrimination and police brutality and neglect and a dozen other things. The issues around child protection, wellbeing, and the care system are incredibly complicated and there is often not a good option, just a least worst one. I think the novel reflects that. It would be lovely to read some sort of epilogue in which Leon is suddenly doing really well, and planning to be a doctor, and has been somehow reunited with his brother–but that isn’t real. There were a couple of times when I was quite afraid for Leon, because de Waal constantly shows that she is willing to make the hard but realistic narrative choices, rather than the reassuring implausible ones. This is reflected in a complicated outcome for Leon: possibly the least worst one, but possibly not.

In short, I can’t recommend this highly enough, and I can’t wait to read absolutely everything else that Kit de Waal writes. (A quick search shows me that she’s written an essay in a recent book about the Peasants’ Revolt, so that’s exciting). The myriad complexities of the child protection system, how it feels to love a parent with serious mental health issues, and the restorative power of gardening–these are all things that I care about deeply, and they were written about so well. If you do end up reading it, I’d love to hear what you think.