I have a lot of respect for Kit de Waal. Not only has she produced a debut novel which manages to be both devastating and stubbornly hopeful in the way it deals with big issues of racial and social injustice, violence, mental health and family breakdown. She’s also shining a light on the gaping holes in the shelves of UK bookstores where working-class authors and stories should be.
My Name is Leon is a fantastic book. By telling Leon’s story through his nine-year-old eyes, de Waal reminds us of a truth that a child wouldn’t even question: the colour of someone’s skin should not determine what they can do or who they can be. Leon’s frustration and sadness at being caught in a care system that ‘works’ for his little white brother Jake – which means Jake is quickly adopted – but seemingly has no long-term solution for mixed-race Leon is visceral and heartbreaking.
We are with Leon as he listens in on phone calls between his foster carer and social workers; as he watches the diverse neighbourhood around him teeter on the edge of impending race riots. It hurts that we can’t reach out and protect him from things he shouldn’t have to experience. We feel his confusion, and ultimately come away equally baffled that any of this had to happen.
More than that though, My Name is Leon is imbued with a tender humour and resilient spirit that makes it a really enjoyable read. It’s one of the only books I can remember reading where the characters are unapologetically and three-dimensionally working-class. It’s something I’m more used to seeing, albeit infrequently, in British film.
Reading My Name is Leon reminded me of how one of my favourite films, Brassed Off, manages to deal with the significant social and political issues surrounding the pit closures in Northern England with real heart, tears, music and laughter. Ultimately, it confronts us if with ordinary people pulling together and getting by when the system is pretty firmly stacked up against them.
My feeling is that there are not too many writers who get this. Kit de Waal has written brilliantly about how working-class writers need to be ‘invited to the party’. I couldn’t agree more.
It’s been twenty years since we were told that ‘we’re all middle-class now‘. Today, this sentiment couldn’t feel more hollow. As the UK recovers from it’s third divisive national vote in as many years (and gears up for another probable general election in the not-too-distant future), class is back on the agenda. Many on the left rage about the right-wing tabloid press, eaten up by the working classes, whipping up their hate against progressive politics, against marginalised people, of being hellbent on a Conservative political agenda. People on the right chastise the Labour party for abandoning its working-class origins to appeal to the more affluent and privileged lefty/liberal middle-class.
What I find worrying is how few stories there are about what it actually is to be working-class. Too often, it’s a terms tinged with accusation, shame or pity. Whenever I try to reflect it in my writing, I recognise that it’s probably only because I’m not really working-class anymore that I have the opportunity to sit down and write about it. What I love about My Name is Leon is it shows that *SPOILER ALERT* life has real struggles – more so when you don’t have the right postcode/accent/skin colour/bank balance – but people who struggle know how to get by. They’ve been doing it for years. And we would all benefit from listening to them more.
I’d love to read more of these stories. Any recommendations?