Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leavers follows the stories of Deming Guo and his mother Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant. One morning, Polly goes to her job at a nail salon but never returns home.
With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is put into foster care and eventually adopted by two white college professors. They move him from the Bronx where he’s grown up to a small town upstate and rename him Daniel Wilkinson. But, far away from his family, friends and all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life and identity with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.
A chance connection with a friend from his past provides him with the opportunity to find his biological mother again and find the answers he so desperately needs.
I initially struggled to connect with Deming/Daniel’s portrayal because he seemed constantly lost and destined to make all the wrong choices in life, he acquires a very debilitating gambling habit and other than that you don’t have a sense of who he is really. But after a while I came to see how his characterisation lent to the overall disconnection he felt in terms of understanding his identity and his desperate desire to fit in, no matter the cost to himself. In this context, I think Lisa Ko does an excellent job of depicting the constant sense of otherness and isolation that Daniel feels, due to the fact he is adopted by people of a different race and culture who don’t really understand or at least try to understand how he might be feeling.
Overall, I enjoyed reading The Leavers but it took me a while to get there. I think my enjoyment levels perked up when the novel focused on Polly’s backstory and the events leading up to her disappearance and what happened to her subsequently. Her’s was a story that was really compelling and heartbreaking. She didn’t always make the right choices, and the writing does not shy away from that or try to justify the decisions she made and for me that really made the story.