Monday, May 23, 2016
Book Review: My Name Is Leon
Those of you who read here often will know a lot about me. I'm obsessed with cats, I love cheesey movies, I spend too much money on stationery and pyjamas, and I adore my tribe (both related and non-related; online and IRL). I talk about a lot of things here, often at length - blame my natural chattiness and my passion for writing and sharing for that. There are some things that I don't write about as often, or mention at all, even though in life I'm an open book about them...they just don't come up as much.
Today, I'll be chatting about a couple of things I haven't mentioned much before on the blog (forgive me if I have - over a decade of writing to process when making that statement), simply because I think they give me a bit of a different take and a different insight on the book I'm reviewing. And those topics are two things I'm passionate about, and which have changed and affected my life in a real, tangible and huge way; adoption and fostering.
In my life (gosh, I sound like an aged woodland creature in a Disney film now) I've encountered both, and both have changed my life. Forgive me if we're friends in real life and you've heard this tale before. First, let's look at adoption. On a first glance, my family looks very normal (perhaps not if you join us for supper though; we're an opinionated group of stubborn, silly folk), but we're also a family built with adoption at the heart.
My mother is my biological parent, but my dad is my adoptive father. I've never met my biological father. In my more flippant moments I say he gave me two things, some DNA and a signature; when I'm feeling more reflective I can appreciate that there are parts of my physicality that favour his side from the few pictures I've seen - my Scottish stockiness, enormo-hands and bright blue eyes certainly don't come from my mother's side!
I've never felt the need to 'find' him because in all truth I don't really need to; I have a dad. Anyone whose spent time with me and dad will realise that it's a pure triumph of nurture over nature - we have the same ridiculous (and horribly immature) sense of humour, the same love of a drink with friends, the same tell when we're about to lose our temper, the same love of music and film. Adoption doesn't always work, but in our family's case it really, truly has.
When I was a baby, before mum and dad met (my biological father left while my mother was pregnant. Again here my reaction varies from a sarcastic slowclap to empathy for someone trapped in a situation they disliked so much they felt they had to bolt. Depends on the day, to be honest), mum and I lived in a small council house in rural Scotland and things were...not good. Mum was an absolutely devoted parent and did everything she could to keep me safe, warm and happy, but the money just wasn't there for two people. So she barely ate, and was stressed beyond belief. This all came to a head and eventually she was hospitalised with malnutrition. Ah, the eighties.
At this point I came into the remit of the care services. Discussions were had about what to do (again, I was a baby, so please allow a little artistic licence here - I'm building on stories told by others!), and eventually it was decided I'd be fostered by a family who lived in the same town as us for a few weeks. And that was the start of a relationship which has been going for over three decades now....
Frank & Sandra, my foster parents, are two of the kindest, funniest and humblest people I know. Without their help, the lives of both me and my mum would have been much, much poorer. My mum loves to tell the story of how Sandra came to drop me back at the end of my fostering placement and told one of the best white lies ever. Taking one look at my tired, isolated mum and probably realising that what she most needed was a little help, Sandra gushed about how much they loved having me to stay, and please would my mum allow the family to have me to stay for a day or two each week? My mum said yes, and for the next few years until we moved away from the area I stayed one or two nights a week with my foster family. For mum it was a chance to work and get healthy and make plans; for me it was a chance to be part of a family where I was utterly doted upon - some of my first memories are from time spent with Sandra, Frank and their four children.
Even when I moved away, we stayed in contact through cards and letters, visits and get-togethers, and I'm far closer to Frank & Sandra and their children than any of my biological cousins, aunts or uncles. Again, nurture trumped nature on just about every level. They are two of the greatest people I know (and I know some pretty awesome people) and their heart for fostering and adoption is a marvel. They have changed the lives of dozens of children for the better, and without them my life would have been very much the poorer.
I found myself thinking of Sandra and Frank often when reading My Name Is Leon, the debut novel from Kit de Waal, a story with fostering and adoption at its very heart. My Name Is Leon follows the story of Leon and his baby brother Jake when they are taken into care. Children of the same mother, but different fathers, the boys are pulled on two very different paths by the fickle machinations of the care system.
The story unfolds from Leon's point of view, which I found incredibly touching, and which gives a real sense of the lost-ness and bewilderment of a child struggling to understand the very adult situations around him. The relationships, whether between Leon and Jake, or his mother, or Maureen (on whom more later in the review), or Tufty, are adeptly drawn and infused with rawness and emotion.
The book evokes the mood and feel of the eighties wonderfully, from Curly Wurlys to BMX bikes to the songs on the radio: I can almost see the all-brown-everything sitting room furniture of my youth. Leon is a narrator to treasure, and his nine-year-old point of view and frame of reference adds a real pathos to proceedings - there are several scenes where as adults we readers understand situations before Leon is able to do so.
De Waal writes her characters with a keen eye - she's both steady in description but able to shy away from judgement, and this lends a real humaity to the people she's created. Maureen, Leon's foster-carer, is a character to cherish, as well as a real representation of the thousands of hardworking, wonderful, under-reported foster parents in this country. The media seizes upon any wrongdoing by people who work with children in care (and are correct to do so) but they are woefully poor at celebrating the very many carers doing good, hard, testing work with some of our most vulnerable children and young people. Hopefully if we see a few more books with characters as honest, fullsome and real as Maureen we can move towards a fairer portrait of affairs, where we can root out the wrongdoers and share the inspirational stories of the good in equal measure. We need more foster carers in every area of the country, and I hope that a lot of politicians and policy makers encounter books and characters like My Name Is Leon and Maureen.
My Name Is Leon is a special and important book. It's both a wonderful, entertaining, moving story and a book that shines a light on an area of national life we don't always hear about. A story about the unexpected twists that life can take, and the unusual places where we can find love, belonging, and a place to call home. Released next month, I cannot recommend it more highly; for me this is one of the must read pieces of fiction of the year.