Gig Review: Kit de Waal in Bath

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Since reading Kit de Waal’s captivating debut, My Name Is Leon (which I review here), I have been looking forward to meeting the author and hearing her talk about how she came to write such an authentic, perceptive book. Thanks to Toppings, one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, I had this opportunity last night.

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Toppings had a wonderful window display for the book and event. Apologies that my camera struggled to capture it in all its glory due to the reflected sunshine.

Having spent the afternoon exploring the city and enjoying the warm weather I was relieved to enter this sanctuary and rest my weary legs whilst imbibing my glass of complimentary wine. As I watched the place fill up I was able to listen to readers discussing the book and how it had touched them.

Kit started her talk with a little personal background. Like the eponymous protagonist of her novel she is mixed race, although she gave no indication if this caused her any difficulties growing up. She did say that her home was always filled with children, cared for by her mother at a time when child minding was not so tightly regulated. Parents could fail to collect their children for days at a time and her mother would cope.

Kit’s career spanned periods working in law courts and at social services before her own adopted children needed her to stay at home to provide care. Driven to distraction by being in her house all day after many years spent in demanding jobs she decided to try her hand at writing a book. She wrote an astounding thriller that, for some reason, nobody wished to publish. An MA course in creative writing offered some explanation as to why, and it was around this time that Leon came to life.

Kit now sits on an adoption advisory panel so has first hand experience of the difficult decisions that must sometimes be made by adults regarding vulnerable children’s welfare. All of this background and experience has been channelled into her candid, poignant tale of a young boy who is separated from everything he loves and cares for through no fault of his own.

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Kit gave two readings from her book. These brought to life the challenges the characters faced, especially Leon’s mother, Carol, who it would be rather too easy to condemn for the way she neglected to provide adequate care for her young boys. Kit pointed out that many of the parents she deals with through social services have had difficult childhoods of their own. Carol was a teenager when she gave birth to Leon and suffered from depression and reliance on drugs. Most parents love their children even if they cannot provide for their needs without support, perhaps through lack of knowledge, ability or circumstance. Like Leon, however badly they are treated, children most often continue to love their parents.

Questions were invited from the audience. These were mainly about Kit’s writing and her own experince of dealing with young people put in care. She pointed out that, whilst early intervention may enable more families to stay together, this is expensive. In the current climate, funding is made available for crisis management but less so for long term support. More adopters are needed, but relatively few are willing to take on large family groups of children, meaning that decisions to split up beloved siblings must be made.

Kit told us that some of the characters in her book will be revisited in a collection of short stories that she is currently working on. I am always on the look out for well written, innovative short story collections so am excited to hear that one is being prepared by such a talented writer.

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As we queued to have copies of our books signed I discovered that a twitter friend was also in the audience. It was lovely to meet fellow book lover and blogger Claire Thinking (pictured above with Kit). You should all go and follow her on twitter now: Claire Thinking.

Thank you to Kit and Toppings for an interesting and enjoyable evening. It was lovely to listen to an author who seemed so at home with her audience. You should also of course, read her book.

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‘My Name Is Leon’ is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available to buy now.

 

 

Book Review: My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon, by Kit de Waal, is a poignant, honest, deeply moving tale of a child in care told from his point of view. Leon is a mixed race nine year old who enjoys playing with his action men, watching ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ and riding his bike. He lives with his mum, Carol, but is often left with their neighbour, Tina. Carol is twenty-five years old and suffers from depression.

The book opens with the birth of Leon’s little brother, Jake, who is blonde haired, blue eyed and pale skinned like their mum. Leon adores his little brother but sometimes gets angry when Carol expects him to care for the baby while she goes out or takes to her bed. Things come to a head when Jake is four months old and Tina reports their situation to social services. Leon and Jake are put in emergency foster care with an older lady, Maureen, who been fostering kids for years.

At Maureen’s Leon and Jake are kept clean and clothed, fed well and given toys. Leon wants to return to his beloved mum, or have her come live here, but she has disappeared. A decision is made to put Jake up for adoption. A white baby is desirable; an older, coloured boy is not.

Maureen is doing her best to support Leon but then she too becomes ill and he is sent to live with her sister, Sylvie. Everything Leon loves is being taken from him and he is angry. The adults put on their pretend faces and talk down to him but he is adept at eavesdropping and overhears snippets of what he believes to be the truth. He determines to take matters into his own hands.

The story is set in early 1980s England with its backdrop of racism, riots and a royal wedding. Each of the characters have their flaws and prejudices, but also compassion. They are presented rounded and real.

My heart hurt for Leon, for the changes forced on him through no fault of his own. Those charged with his care were doing their best but, seen through his eyes, this could never make things right. They had taken him from his mum and then given away his little brother. He felt alone and abandoned, unable to articulate the betrayal felt at the decisions being made.

Although dealing with difficult issues this is not a bleak book. Leon’s days are made better by chocolate biscuits, curly wurlies, by playing imaginative games and learning to grow vegetables at a local allotment. Here he meets Tufty, a coloured man who writes radical poetry and listens to reggae. He also meets Mr Devlin who isn’t what he seems.

The writing is succinct and candid, captivating and moving; in places it had me in tears. I loved this book and especially Leon. He is a fine boy in a flawed world, grieving and angry but coping as best he can. Ultimately that is all any of us can do.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Viking.