Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, follows a mother and son separated by immigration agents, borders, and new families. Deming Guo wakes up one day in the Bronx to find that his mother Polly has disappeared. Soon, he is Daniel Wilkinson of upstate New York. We follow Daniel as he struggles through high school, the emotional turmoil of his mom’s abrupt departure, makes a friend who isn’t white, makes a friend who was adopted from China (same but different), and graduates high school. Until he learns some information about his mom’s whereabouts.
The novel flits back and forth between Daniel’s story and Polly’s, told from her own perspective. But while we follow Daniel’s story more or less linearly, Polly’s unfolds more circuitously. From her present life in China married to a successful businessman who doesn’t know she ever had a son, we follow Polly’s life backwards and around: Days raising Deming in the Bronx to her life as a child in China, to the terrifying series of events that led to her forced separation from her son unfolding in the very last pages.
This is a story about family, about bonds that are broken and reforged. About immigration and injustice. About forgiveness and moving forward. Who are the people who live in between and how will they find their way? Lisa Ko’s two protagonists are deeply human, flawed and enticing, shaped by circumstances often beyond their control, yet seemingly fully aware of the choices they make. In the end, Polly and Deming search for themselves, in each other and in constant turmoil over what kind of life to lead. Parts of The Leavers are truly gripping, stunning in their storytelling arc, in other places, a bit slow, but overall, Ko offers an interesting arc and a truth about our current time.