When we first meet him, Leon is 8 years old, going on 9. He is in the hospital with his mother Carol, holding his baby brother, Jake, for the first time. This first scene sets up the way things are going to be: Leon holding his new brother with care, Carol going off for a cigarette before feeding Jake, and eventually the nurse leaving Leon to look after his baby brother alone.
And so it goes. Carol is unstable, dependent on prescription drugs and barely able to look after herself, never mind her two sons. Leon steps in and takes care of Jake, feeding him and changing his nappies. Eventually Carol goes into a drug-induced coma, and the neighbour calls in an ambulance and social services.
The boys are taken in by Maureen, an older woman who has fostered more than 20 children over her career. She is obviously good with children and creates a sense of security for Leon. But the boys have different fathers and therefore different fates: Leon is mixed race with a Caribbean father, and Jake is white. Jake is adopted quite quickly but social services cannot find a family to take Leon. Maureen realizes the devastating effect that breaking up the brothers is going to have on Leon but is powerless to stop it.
When Maureen has a stroke and has to go to hospital, Leon has to move again, this time to Maureen’s sister, Sylvia. He has lost so much: his mother, whom he hardly sees now, his brother and then Maureen. He develops behavioural problems: he has no friends in school, he steals and acts out his anger. The one plus he has going for him is that although Sylvia is not the maternal figure that Maureen has been, she genuinely cares about him.
Leon’s world widens when one of the social workers gives him a bike. Riding around Sylvia’s neighbourhood, he discovers an allotment near Sylvia’s house. He becomes friendly with two men there: Tufty, a Caribbean man, who introduces him to racial politics and Mr. Devlin, an Irishman, who seems a little suspect. The two men cannot stand each other but have a lot to teach him (including how to grow beans).
As you can tell from the title, Leon is the centre of the book. It is told from his point of view and he feels so real: a child trying to be an adult, dealing with abandonment and grown-ups who are not always there for him. He feels it is up to him to bring his family back together because no one else seems to want to. It’s heart-wrenching: he is so convinced he can do it, but as the reader you are aware that the world doesn’t work that way.
I spent a lot of the book dreading what was going to happen to Leon, but Kit de Waal never lets things get too fraught. Characters are drawn with a lot of empathy—none of them are saints but nor are they horrible. They’re just people, trying to do the best they can.
De Wall has advised social services on adoption and mother was a foster mother, so she obviously knows her subject. Although social services don’t always come off well, this book is not an exposé of the things can go wrong. It is a warm, empathetic book, and it’s good to be reminded of the humanity of ordinary people, especially in the current climate.