The Leavers ~ Lisa Ko

Expected publication: May 2nd, 2017

The Leavers

Date Completed: 12/22/2016


Prepare yourself for this novel wrought with emotions regarding both family and friends. The Leavers is, first and foremost, the story of Deming Guo and his mother Polly. The novel is set in both New York and Fuzhou, China where Deming and Polly spend most of their time, whether together or apart. The story begins when Polly heads to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. Deming,his Aunt Vivian, and Polly’s boyfriend Leon can’t figure out where she went. Slowly, the life they had built together falls apart. Leon leaves, Vivian can no longer afford to take care of both her son and Deming, and Deming is soon put up for adoption. He is adopted by two white parents, well-meaning, but unprepared to help this young Chinese American boy discover what has happened in his past.

The Leavers is so good on so many levels. I’m not even sure where to begin.

The timeline of this story is so confusing and yet effective. Most of the story, I was unsure of whether I was in the present or the past. The narrative switches back and forth with ease both between times and between point of view (Polly vs. Deming). The time switches were extremely effective in providing the reader with glimpses of past and present (which is oftentimes still the past) until the whole story is ultimately uncovered, really creating the trance-like retelling that can enable the reader to feel a part of the story.

At times the family/friend dynamics are really uncomfortable. A lot of mistakes are made by everyone, and this is ultimately a story of forgiveness. Deming’s white adoptive parents, Kay and Peter, do their best to give him links to his cultural heritage as someone of Fuzhounese decent, but Deming is often conflicted as to whether these attempts benefit him or detract from his overall well being. At the same time, Kay and Peter change his name to Daniel Wilkenson, giving him an American “white” name.

Deming spends much of the story mad at his mother, Leon, and Vivian, unsure as to why they all left him and sent him away to be on his own. He spends a lot of his time making one mistake that leads to the next, searching for something he can do that will make himself feel valued. However, he ends up disappointing both friends and family on his quest for success, and he ultimately has to deal with his mistakes when he finally finds he is without structure or aspirations in life.

This is also a story of immigrants, raising the question, where is safety for immigrants? Polly spends thousands of dollars to make it to America, but is that ultimately a safety-net? How do white people treat Chinese Americans? Deming struggles throughout the entire story as to what it means to belong as a Chinese American.

Ko also explores synethesia as an aspect to Deming’s character, giving him both a safety net and another level of weird for people to make fun of him for. Being synesthetic is not a huge plot point, but I appreciate the added descriptive bonus that makes synesthesia an integral part of Deming’s story.

As I mentioned, this is a story of forgiveness as well. I appreciate that Lisa Ko does not wrap up the story neatly, glossing over the ending and creating a happy family image. She lets the sadness and uncertainty persist, but she also gives readers optimistic hope that things might turn out better for Deming as well as the rest of the characters, and that they might all reach a point of understanding and forgiveness with one another for the mistakes made and the reconciliations attempted. I thoroughly appreciate the ending to this story.

The Leavers is Lisa Ko’s debut novel, although she’s written plenty of other short writings. You can visit her website or check her out on Goodreads. Be sure to check out this book at publication! I’ll remind you! Also The Leavers has already won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

I received a copy of this book via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.



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