Published by Algonquin Books on May 2nd 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Goodreads Synopsis: 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.
Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It’s the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away–and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of her past.
This powerful debut is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.
The Leavers is a very compelling and timely read that explores what happens to a Chinese family living in New York when immigration suddenly becomes an issue and one of them is forced to leave the country. It follows the life of Deming Guo, an eleven year old Chinese American boy who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He shares an apartment with his mother, Polly, who is an undocumented Chinese immigrant, Polly’s boyfriend Leo, as well as Leo’s sister, Vivian and her son. Things are a little tight, but they all do the best they can and it’s the only family Deming has ever known so he’s comfortable with the arrangement.
Then one day Polly doesn’t come home from work. No one seems to know what happened to her. Days, weeks, even months go by without a word from her. Deming vaguely remembers his mother talking about wanting to move to Florida for a better job and sadly assumes that she has chosen to do so and just left him behind. Then Leo disappears as well, and soon after, Vivian decides she can no longer take care of Deming and surrenders him so that he can be adopted by someone who can. Deming ends up being adopted by an old white couple and thus begins a new life in upstate New York where the couple lives. The rest of the novel explores how being left behind by his mother shapes basically every aspect of Deming’s life.
Deming’s Journey: I just found Deming’s story so heartbreaking because he seems so lost most of the time, like he has no idea who he really is and just doesn’t really fit in or belong anywhere. Even as he moves into adulthood, no matter where he goes and what he tries to do – whether it’s attend college or even to pursue his passion, which is music, the question of what happened to his real mother always casts its shadow over him. He grows up feeling it’s somehow all his fault that his mother abandoned him. In this sense, Lisa Ko has crafted The Leavers into a coming of age story because Deming (or Daniel as his adoptive parents have renamed him in an effort to ‘Americanize’ him) spends much of the story trying to figure out who he even is. This search for identity is a major theme.
Flawed Characters: The older Deming/Daniel gets, the more determined he becomes to find out the truth about why his mother left him. Lisa Ko adds another layer to the story at this point by adding in Polly’s point of view and having Polly fill in the gaps in the original story that we’ve been following. We learn what really happened to her and what she has been doing ever since and why she didn’t make more of an effort to get back to her son. It’s a painful story and Polly definitely made some regretful choices along the way that she has been forced to live with, but her flaws are what make her human and what make her story so moving. Even though I was angry with her at first for not figuring out a way to reunite with her son, by the end of her story, I found myself forgiving her.
The only reason I haven’t given this novel full marks is that even though seeing the effects of deportation on both mother and son made for a powerful read, I felt like it sometimes made the story too broad in scope, especially when there were alternating chapters between the son as a boy, the same son as a grown man, and then partway through, we suddenly had chapters from the mom as well. It sometimes took me a few minutes to figure out who the narrator was as I began a new chapter. Even though it confused me at times, however, I still thought it was wonderful read overall.
With its poignant exploration of how deportation can rip families apart and ruin lives, it’s very easy to see why Lisa Ko’s The Leavers won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
RATING: 4 STARS
Thanks so much to Netgalley, the author, and Algonquin Books for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review. This in no way impacts my view of the book.