The Leavers – Lisa Ko

30753987One day, Deming Guo’s mother doesn’t come home. Did she go to Florida, as she said she’d hoped to? Did she find a new boyfriend and marry him? Is she dead somewhere – like out of a CSI show – as her son wonders? Lisa Ko’s The Leavers takes its time solving the mystery of her disappearance, as we instead follow Deming’s journey from the Bronx to a suburban town upstate. There, Deming becomes Daniel Wilkinson – a new name that comes with two well-meaning but ignorant white foster parents.

Ko’s novel follows two generations attempting to broach borders, those between countries and those between people. Deming is irrevocably changed by the mystery of his mother’s absence. As an adult, he is feckless and unmoored, despite repeated attempts by his foster parents to mold him into the ideal professor’s son. As the novel progresses, we switch to the viewpoint of Deming’s fiercely independent and ambitious mother. Here is where Ko’s story really takes off. Her portrait of Deming’s mother, Polly Guo, is always engaging and never veers off into the trite. Determined to maintain agency over her own life, Polly manages to be thoughtful and fierce even when constrained by faceless bureaucracies and impossible circumstances.

As the novel progresses, we switch to the viewpoint of Deming’s fiercely independent and ambitious mother. Here is where Ko’s writing really shines. Her portrait of Deming’s mother, Polly Guo, is always engaging and never veers off into the trite – a potentially difficult task when telling the story of someone who came from such modest beginnings.  Determined to maintain agency over her own life, Polly remains thoughtful and fierce even when constrained by faceless bureaucracies and impossible circumstances.

If there’s one complaint to be made about The Leavers, it’s that I could have spent a few more chapters with Polly (and, perhaps, Polly’s father, who gets frustratingly little characterization, but who I remain curious about).

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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