The Leavers by Lisa Ko is a powerful debut novel full of rich characters, a very current immigrant tale, a story of family love, family loss, and it’s a coming of age story too.
Cover blurb – One morning Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon – and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.
Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.
At age eleven, Deming is mystified and bereft. His life is turned upside down and he’s signed over to an adoption agency and placed with well-meaning white professors. He’s moved upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. Kids are resilient and yet, Deming/Daniel drifts – trying to please his adoptive parents and yet not feeling as if he fits in anywhere. He seems to screw up what he touches – school, his music, being in a rock band, and friendships. He’s wary, always ready to be left.
The author tells the story from different viewpoints – Deming as a kid, Daniel as a young man, and from Polly. We do learn what happened to her and how she also had to adapt and survive. Her choices left her with many regrets and she always felt the loss of Deming. There are lots of questions in this book and no easy answers.
p.48 after Daniel is adopted One week later, tucked into a double bed sheathed with red flannel, Deming Guo awoke with the crumbs of dialect on his tongue, smudges and smears of dissolving syllables, nouns, and verbs washed out to sea.
The Leavers is poignant and sticks with you – to me that’s the sign of a really good read.