‘The future destiny of the child is always the work of the mother. Let France have good mothers, and she will have good sons,’ Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said. So what happens to France, or indeed anywhere, when families breakdown and mothers go missing? What chaos will that unleash in young boys, as they grow into men? Reading Kit de Waal’s debut novel, My Name Is Leon, one cannot help but ponder on such questions, despite them being just out of sight. For de Waal’s story is not of a troubled teenager but a nine year-old, who goes into foster care after his mother breaks down following the birth of her second child. Stories ‘about a boy’ are hardly new, but de Waal has carved out something original – Leon, the nine year-old and Jake, the newborn, are maternal half-brothers, with Leon’s father being black, and Jake’s father being white. Both men are absent and thus when the brothers go into care in 1980s Britain, the white baby quickly gets adopted, leaving his mixed-race brother behind. Ripe with pathos from the outset, such a story is fodder for those who like a rainy day matinee. But what of others – the more cynical, the grizzled? Men..? To connect to a broader base, it’s vital to not ostentatiously emote. When heartstrings get pulled gratuitously, those beyond that weepy matinee crowd will back away. And in a story wherein the central character is a child, that child’s thoughts and indeed whole world should feel authentically child-like, without being childish. Get either wrong, and all you have is a set-piece affair – old-school genre fiction. Get it right, and you’re looking at a work of art. And de Waal absolutely nails it – the disintegration of the family unit, through the eyes of the boy, is beautifully done. There is a lightness to the author’s touch – the undoing of major cogs come across as incidental, befitting a nine year-old’s level of comprehension. And the emotional temperature has been so perfectly calibrated, and the characters so finely drawn, it would simply be incorrect to pigeon-hole this work: it is not weepy fiction, it’s not even women’s fiction. My Name Is Leon is a sensitive and sophisticated work of art – an exploration of working-class life that refuses the easy cliché; the money-for-nothing emoting.
Much of the beauty in this novel comes from what is left unsaid, whereas in the secondary thread – 1980s Britain and multiculturalism – de Waal attempts to hold the reader’s hand and, in comparison to the finesse shown elsewhere, that sometimes feels clunky. There is a ‘neatness’ to de Waal’s multicultural landscape, despite its turbulence, giving it a manufactured, almost ‘sponsored by Nike’ feel. In another novel this could grate but here, it is reduced to a mere side note – such is the power within the key passages.
Any Cop?: De Waal deserves all the acclaim she is receiving. My Name Is Leon is highly charged, deeply affecting but never saccharine-sweet. A huge triumph.