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The Leavers


The Leavers

Lisa Ko’s debut novel, THE LEAVERS, was selected by Barbara Kingsolver as the most recent winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize, founded by Kingsolver to award fiction that addresses “issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” It’s hard to imagine a more suitable choice than THE LEAVERS, which --- using effective literary techniques and beautiful language --- powerfully illustrates the impact that social policies and injustice have on the lives of individuals and families.

THE LEAVERS opens the day before 11-year-old Deming Guo sees his mother, Polly, for the last time. Polly, a manicurist at a Bronx nail salon, has lived in New York City since months before Deming’s birth. Deming, who was born in the United States and is consequently a U.S. citizen, spent much of his early childhood with Polly’s father in the Chinese city of Fuzhou. Like many undocumented Chinese immigrants, Polly was in thrall to the loan sharks who paid her way to the U.S., and she quickly found that she couldn’t care for a young child and also work enough hours to pay off her monumental debt.

"[U]sing effective literary techniques and beautiful language, [THE LEAVERS] powerfully illustrates the impact that social policies and injustice have on the lives of individuals and families."

But now the two are back together again, and things seem good, at least to Deming. He likes his mother’s boyfriend, Leon, and even if their apartment is crowded, he enjoys his friendship with Leon’s nephew, Michael, and his mother, Vivian. So when Polly fails to come home from work one day, everyone is mystified, especially Deming.

Fast forward 10 years, and Deming is now known as Daniel Wilkinson. Months after his mother’s disappearance, he was put in foster care with two professors in a college town in upstate New York. The only Asian kid in this lily-white small town, Daniel never really felt like he belonged, and after a series of bad decisions (largely spurred by a gambling addiction), he now finds himself a college dropout, back in New York, playing music with his childhood friend, Roland. He hasn’t seen Vivian, Leon, Michael or his mother in a decade, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped thinking about them. So when he’s unexpectedly contacted by Michael just when his self-doubt is peaking, he’s not sure what to do. Does he pretend that that part of his life is over? Or does he seek out answers that he might not actually want to find?

Near the end of THE LEAVERS, Polly (who narrates significant sections in the novel’s second half, episodes revealing why she came to the U.S. and why she left Deming) wonders whether it might not be harder to figure out how to stay in one place than how to leave it. Her whole adult life, after all, has been one of upheaval and relocation, of migration and reinvention, one that her now-adult son, Daniel, has knowingly or unknowingly adopted as well. The two of them are both groundless, aimless --- and even though, near the end of the book, Polly seems outwardly stable and Daniel anything but, the two are still far from anything resembling stasis or even stability.

Exploring such topics as nature vs. nurture, language and identity, loneliness and belonging, THE LEAVERS is a novel that puts human faces on issues whose public debate too often remains abstract and theoretical.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 5, 2017

The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

  • Publication Date: April 24, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 161620804X
  • ISBN-13: 9781616208042