Book Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

If you would have told me, a few
months ago, that I would be reading a debut novel about a Chinese immigrant in
New York City and loved it as much as I did, I would probably have been pretty
surprised about it. Not because of the genre, or because of the culture, but
because I never imagined that I would love a book as much as I did this one.

Let me start by saying that Ko’s
prose is beautifully written – I found myself instantly attracted to the novel,
primarily because of the bold colour of its beautiful cover and then because of
the way it presents itself as a piece of literature. Instantly I was sucked
into the story and wanted to delve as deep as possible to understand the reasoning
behind Deming’s mother’s disappearance. Deming naturally feels resentment for
his mother after she disappears without a trace after heading to work for the
day. This resentment builts to the extent that he has absolutely no interest in
finding out what happened ot her – until of course, he hears news of her and
the natural, questioning instinct of humanity sets itself upon his mind. He
feels guilt for wondering about her, having been adopted by a middle-class
American couple shortly after his mother left. He is the only Chinese boy in
his year group at school and he quickly establishes himself quite
unintentionally as the outsider – making friends with another outsider, a Mexican
boy who he later plays in a band with.

The second part of the story
directly parallels the first part and we hear Polly’s side of the story and
follow her journey as immigrant from China to self-sacrificing mother in the
States. In doing this, she aims for freedom but this does not happen to her in
the way she desires.

It is clear that Deming feels a
significant degree of cultural displacement, struggling to fit in within the
white suburban family he is adopted by and feeling locked down by his adoptive
parents’ expectations – they want him to succeed so that they succeed in
themselves and in their task to socialise this seemingly ‘lost’ child. Ko, as
the author, does well in subtly critiquing this, depicting the family as being
unintentionally condescending in a society where migrants and minorities are
seemingly overlooked.

There’s a reason why this book
was a bestseller in the US and I have no doubts that it will have similar
success here in the UK.