book review: The Leavers

leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Algonquin Books| May 2017| 338 pages | $25.95| ISBN:

RATING: *****/5*

An intense mediation on race, culture, identity, sense of place and belonging, The Leavers by Lisa Ko is a gorgeous and thoughtfully written debut novel that should resonate with progressives and allow others insight into the struggles of undocumented immigrants. It’s not that they don’t want to follow protocol. It’s often that they have few choices. It’s the story of what happens when Deming Guo’s mother Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, fails to return from her job at a nail salon. She just vanishes. She doesn’t contact the family. No one knows if she’s been deported or if she just took off. As a single mother she struggled to cover expenses as a nail technician. After a month or so, her boyfriend’s sister sends Deming off to a foster home in the suburbs where two dogged white professors adopt Deming and change his name to Daniel Wilkinson. They mean well and want Daniel to have the best educational opportunities afforded to him. They want him to have choices for his future.

The story’s told from Daniel’s perspective as well as that of his mother Polly. Daniel struggles to fit in at this white enclave in upstate New York. He doesn’t do well in school and he develops a gambling problem. His parents aren’t happy and Daniel moves to Manhattan to live with a friend and join his band. Although Daniel is now in his late teens he still wonders why his mother abandoned him and never tried to find him. This definitely affects the relationship with his parents as well as his ability to figure out where he fits in. He often thinks about his birth mother and wonders why she doesn’t care enough about him to track him down. That’s enough to make a young man become wayward and develop a gambling addiction.

In the United States, Polly had created a challenging but routine life for herself. She lived with her son and a boyfriend named Leon. Ko writes: “I didn’t want a small, resigned life, but I also craved certainty, safety. I considered suggesting to Leon that we marry other people, legal citizens, for the papers, and after a few years we could divorce our spouses and marry each other.” Now back in her homeland China, she lives a rather comfortable life working as an English teacher. She’s married and lives in a nice apartment. Readers also finally discover what happened when Polly went to work that day at the nail salon. Polly went through a horrific ordeal after ICE placed her in a camp for illegal immigrants. The harsh and nearly inhumane conditions could easily break someone down. It was shocking to read about these middle-of-nowhere holding facilites. Just harsh.

Debut author Lisa Ko said that this novel was inspired by real-life stories of undocumented immigrant women whose United States-born children were ultimately taken from them and raised by American families. She states: “With The Leavers, I want to decenter the narrative of transracial adoption away from that of the adoptive parents.” It’s an important topic when our current president wants to keep people from entering the country as well as crack down on undocumented immigrants, even ones living quiet hard-working lives who have young American-born children.

READ THIS NOVEL. It provides insight and empathy in the plight of immigrants in this country. It’s utterly heartbreaking yet often optimistic and shows resilience among the characters.  I can’t recommend this novel enough. Lisa Ko utilizes lovely prose, a riveting story-line and relatable, flawed characters to highlight the challenges immigrants face today.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.

Lisa Ko will be reading at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, May 17 at 7pm.

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