The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Publisher: Dialogue Books
Publishing Date: 26th April 2018
Source: Received from the publisher in return for an honest review, thank you!
Number of pages: 416
Genre: General Fiction (Adult)
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.
Polly Guo is an undocumented Chinese immigrant in New York. She lives in her boyfriend, her sister, nephew and her son Deming in one apartment in Bronx. One day Polly disappears, and never returns. It’s a great puzzle for all involved – where did she go? What happened? Why isn’t she getting in touch with her family, beloved son? Is she alive?
Deming becomes a foster child to a couple of college professors, Peter and Kay, and turns into Daniel. On one hand, they understand the need of knowing your roots, your tradition, but on the other they want their foster son to assimilate, to adjust and they can’t understand why he has such problems to adjust. Daniel wants to please his parents, of course he does, but he also wants to know what has happened with his mother, as he struggles to understand it.
It was a very character driven story, covering two subplots – this of Deming Guo, whose mothers disappears one day which results in him being adopted by upper middle class white Americans, and this of his mother, Polly Guo, who – yes, you guessed – disappeared, but telling her before story, when she arrived in America from Fuzhou, hoping, as so many others, to find a better life, and I think the parts about Polly and her riveting life were the best moments in the book – her story had drawn me in completely. I also fell for Polly and her desire to have a better life, to make more money without coming at her limits, to provide her son with a worriless future.
The characters were more than brilliantly drawn. They were vivid and multi dimensional and so different and eclectic, and no matter if we talk about main or the supporting characters. Their actions made me often feel also frustrated, it was not only bed of roses with them of course, but it only made them more believable, 3 – D characters, and somehow you also understand their actions and struggles.
This was a sad and very realistic tale about immigration and identity. It felt so close to life and so very true, the characters were honest and genuine in the way they acted and lived. The author doesn’t judge the characters, she just let them live, they really jump off the pages and just feel so very realistic.
It was a story about settling in – or not, about preserving your own culture and identity, and it showed how hard it is when you feels that you belong nowhere. Daniel’s parents meant well providing him with Chinese food but it’s not enough, right? He didn’t feel at home neither in America, nor in China. He looked Chinese in America and he spoke American English in China, he didn’t fit anywhere. But I also had a feeling that Polly felt the same, and no matter what she can’t change it. You know, I’ve also emigrated and am living where I’m living for 13 years already and I didn’t find it problematic to adapt, but maybe because I’ve only moved countries, and not continents or cultures. My neighbour has fallen in love with a girl from Mexico when living in the USA and she came with him to Europe, and I can see that the culture differences, the mentality differences are like a shock for her and she has troubles to adapt, even though everybody and everything is friendly to her and she doesn’t have to fight as Polly did for a better life.
What I so liked in this book is that next to a story of immigration and adaptation, there was this second one, about mother and son and love and how being suddenly ripped apart affected their lives and their personalities. The author has so brilliantly captured the fears, worries and desperation, the feeling of uncertainty, of not knowing what’s happening with your beloved mother or son, it was really heart – wrenching. The storytelling in this book is incredibly powerful and true to life, so realistic, you know, and I felt immediately hooked. The story was so multilayered and touched upon many issues but what surfaced mostly was this normal understanding of humanity.
“The Leavers” is this kind of a story that makes you think and appreciate. It was a thought – provoking, eye – opening tale about love that was exquisitely well written. It was so very human, so close to people. A story about love and loss, hope and despair, identity and consequences, with unforgettable characters – you’re going to lock them in your heart and never forget about them. And I can’t believe it’s a debut novel – and already a winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction and finalist for the National Book Awards 2017, and Oprah Book Club Pick!. Highly recommended!
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