Book Review – The Leavers by Lisa Ko

In the current political climate, I’ve been drawn to novels tied to relevant subjects, no matter how loosely tied. Because of this, the description for Lisa Ko’s The Leavers drew my attention and interest. Though the core of the novel revolves around the personal natures and relationships of the main characters, the circumstances that serve as a backdrop for these characters do a fantastic job of subtly highlighting the intricacies of the United States’ immigration system and many injustices that stem from it.

For more than a decade Daniel Wilkinson knew nothing about his birth mother’s disappearance. One day she had been with him, talking about possibly moving to Florida, and another she never came home from work. But then an old friend from his childhood contacts him out of the blue with a clue to start him on the path towards finding her again and learning the truth about why she’d left him.

I’m a sucker for stories focused on characters searching for a sense of identity so this novel was right up my alley. I found the exploration of American foster and adoption processes is remarkably nuanced acknowledging the unique position of adopted children (particularly those adopted at older ages and who still possess significant memories of their birth parents) with feelings of love, gratitude, and appreciation for their adoptive parents but also the ways that those same feelings can be twisted and used against them—the betrayal they can feel regarding their birth parents, the line between gratitude and resentment as the generosity of their adoptive parents can make them feel obligation and indebtedness, that acknowledgement of appreciation isn’t enough. Through Daniel/Deming’s story, the vulnerability of those children is front and center; he never has a genuine say in what happens to him during that confusing and traumatic period of his mother’s disappearance.

Just as compelling as Daniel/Deming’s emotional and psychological journey is the journey of his birth mother, Peilan “Polly” Guo. Through her eyes the reader gets to see what her life and prospects were in China as she grew up and why she ultimately chose to move (illegally) to the United States. The novel shows just how unglamorous life for illegal immigrants often is—the compromises that get made when options are limited, the fear (and excitement) of being somewhere so culturally different, the threat of being caught and sent back. With her own attempts at defining herself violently interrupted, Polly/Peilan was—in many ways—just as lost as Daniel/Deming while the question of what happened to her son haunted her.

Narratively, The Leavers jumps around in ways that can be disorienting. The perspective shifts from Deming’s childhood view of life in New York City before his mother’s disappearance to that of Daniel, his troubled young adult self. The chapters in Peilan/Polly’s perspective are also first person, which makes it easier for the narrative to shift back and forth between incidents from her past and what’s happening in her present but also means everything from her perspective can (and probably ought to be) taken with a grain of salt; in many ways she is self-aware but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s being completely honest. Even with the jumping around in perspective, the pacing for the novel is carefully plotted to serve the emotional core of the novel most effectively.

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