The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Published by Algonquin Books, 2017.
Lisa Ko has artfully depicted the displacement associated with both immigration and adoption in her debut novel, The Leavers. This is the story of Deming Guo. Contently living in an over-crowded house in the Bronx with his immigrant mother Polly, Deming suddenly finds himself unmoored when Polly mysteriously disappears. Seemingly cast aside and abandoned, and filled with the self-loathing that comes along with it, Deming struggles though life, alienating himself from friends and family. Eventually he finds the courage to seek out the truth of his mother’s disappearance, and ends up finding himself in the process.
While Deming’s story of alienation and identity is engaging, the more vibrant story is told from the perspective of his mother, Polly. Emigrating to America for a better life, Polly is portrayed as a feisty woman, driven by her own demands and dreams. In fact it is hard to even like Polly through most of the book. She comes across as self-serving, and anything but nurturing toward her American-born son. Polly is definitely not the sentimentalized immigrant who does everything right but is still wronged by a flawed system. She is imperfect. She is a Leaver. And in her wake she has left a tragedy, along with her only son.
While Deming ultimately finds closure to his mother’s disappearance, my only critique of the The Leavers is the rather anti-climatic ending. But perhaps that is intentional on Ko’s part. A sense of belonging does not always come with biological roots or a lot of fanfare. Belonging is all about human connection, and the quiet homes we make for ourselves.
And whether or not intended, Ko’s story seems particularly poignant in today’s political environment. A system where immigrants are treated like criminals rather than human beings. However, the book is anything but heavy-handed in its political tone. It is only through glimpses of Polly’s past that provide the subtle subtext of the injustices served by our current immigration system.
Definitely worth the read. Enjoy!
Click for the recipe that I have paired with this book review: Chinese Pork Lettuce Cups