Lead Review

  • Book: The Leavers
  • Location: China, New York City (NYC), The Bronx
  • Author: Lisa Ko

Review Author: tripfiction



Lisa’s Ko’s wonderful debut novel offers the reader a powerful exploration of the theme of identity. Through the often-heart-rending story of Deming and his mother, Polly, Ko focuses on the plight of illegal immigrants and compels the reader to reconsider these issues. It’s difficult to believe that there could be a novel more relevant to our world today.
The story is told in four parts, the first from the perspective of the 11-year-old Deming, living with his mother in the Bronx. They share a shabby apartment with Polly’s boyfriend, Leon, his sister Vivian and her son, Michael. Deming is in search of an identity from the start of the novel, for he has already been shunted about like a parcel – born in New York but, as an infant, sent back to Polly’s childhood village, Minjiang, to live with her father, to enable Polly to work.

When the old man dies, Deming is handed over to a relative and returned to his mother in New York. No sooner does he begin to find his feet in this multi-racial, ghetto-like community (gravitating towards trouble – the identity he seems to be forging is one as “badass Deming”) – than his mother disappears. She goes out to work at the nail salon and doesn’t return and no one has any idea where she has gone. Vivian, unable to cope, takes Deming to Child Services and he is fostered and finally adopted by a middle-class white American couple, Kay and Peter Wilkinson.

Ko’s depiction of Deming’s adoptive parents and her exploration of mixed-race adoption is, I think, masterful. She never ridicules their attempts – we are left in no doubt that the liberal, do-gooding pair of college professors intend nothing but the best for Deming, but they could not get it more wrong. Their attempts to mould Deming in their image, including renaming him Daniel Wilkinson, are condescending and worse, deny him the opportunity to mourn the loss of his mother. Deming/Daniel’s subsequent emotional confusion is drawn very clearly. He clings desperately to the memory of his mother and believes that if he could just talk to her perhaps that would help him decide who he really is.

The second part of the novel where Polly addresses her son in second-person narrative, and tells the story of her life, begins to answer some the questions, we, like Deming have been asking. Polly’s story is tragic – born into extreme poverty in China she migrates from the country to the city to work in a factory but gets pregnant and then makes the decision to go to New York to give birth. Her subsequent story never really makes the reader feel any better about her abandonment of her son, but it does make us brutally aware of how very little choice she had.

This is a very skilful piece of writing – the prose is dense with wonderful imagery, the characterisation is subtle and challenging and it is cleverly structured, keeping the reader, like Deming, in quest of all the answers until the end. Ko depicts a part of New York rarely glimpsed by visitors and the poverty of rural China in great detail. It doesn’t always make for comfortable reading but it does offer you a real insight into how those marginalised in society are forced to live.

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