A review of My Name is Leon, written by Joanne Powell, Senior Lecturer in General Practice Nursing
I so enjoyed reading and reviewing this beautifully and sensitively written book for The Big Read. The story starts with the birth of Jake and the reader soon realises that his mother, Carol, can’t cope. Leon is nine years old and his baby brother, Jake, has just been born. The book describes a particularly difficult period during Leon’s childhood.
The book opens with his mother leaving Jake to go and have a cigarette leaving Leon and Jake together on their own. Carol is also on her own as a single parent – both brothers have different and absent fathers and while Carol and Jake are white, Leon is mixed race. His father, Byron, is in prison, while Jake’s father, Tony, is in another relationship and has rejected Carol and Jake.
Carol has problems coping on her own and spirals into a desperate decline relying on Leon and often leaving him and Jake alone or with her neighbour, Tina. Tina raises the alarm when Leon, desperately hungry, asks Tina for money for food. Jake and Leon go to live with Maureen, an emergency foster carer with “fuzzy red hair like a halo and a belly like Father Christmas”. Jake is soon adopted – he’s white and a baby and therefore in demand. But no one will adopt Leon who has a black father and is already too old.
This book is set during the 1980s in Birmingham during a troubled time characterized by racial tension – Irish republicanism and police brutality against black people that spark the riots of 1981. After a birthday present of a bike, Leon develops a sense of freedom and discovers the Rookery Road allotments. Here we are introduced to pivotal characters Tufty and Mr Devlin. They both introduce Leon to the concept of nurture through the planting and cultivating vegetables from seeds. However, the allotment is a political hotbed and racial tensions spark between Tufty, a West Indian political activist who Leon admires and Mr. Devlin, an aging member of the IRA. Leon, who listens too much at doorways and keyholes, is focused on being reunited with Jake and plots to find him.
This book is a page turner as you seek to find out how it works out for Leon. It provides an important and sometimes uncomfortable commentary on attitudes to parenting, race and adoption during the 1980’s. For me, being a child of the 1980’s, I found the descriptions of the racial tension and riots uncomfortable to read and it provoked distant memories. The novel is full of quietly shocking moments which also reveals how much child protection has moved on from 30 years ago.
If this brilliant review hasn’t already convinced you to read My Name is Leon, here’s another reason – it’s now the winner of KU Big Read. Congratulations Kit De Waal!
Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of My Name is Leon, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.