Title: The Leavers
Author: Lisa Ko
Publisher: Dialogue Books
Publication Date: April 26th 2018
Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟
One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.
With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.
Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review!
The Leavers is a timely debut that ultimately explores the bond between a mother and son – the love that ties them together and the forces, beyond control, which tear them apart. Adopting the dual perspectives of Polly and Deming Guo, the story navigates the themes of immigration and identity, love and loss, and it is utterly heart-wrenching from start to finish.
Throughout the novel, we constantly move between the past, the present, the future; between New York and China; between Deming and Daniel, Pelian and Polly. But the shifting timeline is never confusing, and the two perspectives are always distinctive through their use of third and second person narration.
Not only does Deming struggle to fit in with his adoptive family – who are middle-class white American – but, when he returns to China later in the novel, he also feels a foreignness in his own country, out of touch with his roots and culture. This distinction will resonate with many readers whose parents and grandparents, like Polly, immigrated to the West in search of a better life for their children and for themselves. Never quite American (or British) enough here yet too Western ‘back home.’
I enjoyed watching Deming/Daniel navigate his young adult life – through college, music and a gambling addiction – from the distant, third person perspective that Ko adopts. Additionally, Polly’s second person narration, directly addressing her son was incredibly personal in a way that often felt intrusive, as if I was reading something I wasn’t permitted to. Her story sheds light on and documents the harrowing experience of being an undocumented immigrant in the West, of those who arrive in search of a new life only to get accused of stealing jobs, thrown in camps and torn away from their families who may never know what really happened.
Despite the lengthy chapters, this book is deeply moving, important and relatable. It is a sad story that is solely driven by the characters rather than action, but one that will leave you feeling quite inspired.