The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Review by Vicki Camfield)

Rating: 4/5*

“It was home, a home, but he knew he would have to leave here, too.”

Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese woman in America, disappears when he is just eleven years old – she goes to work one day, and never comes home.

In time, Deming is adopted by a white American family and soon becomes Daniel Wilkinson. Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with the memory of his past. At its heart, The Leavers is a story about not belonging. Deming doesn’t feel Chinese, but Daniel doesn’t feel American either.

The main characters, Deming and his mother, are well fleshed out and although both have their faults and both can both be unlikable at times, they are definitely well rounded, and they feel genuine.

Deming’s adoptive parents, Kay and Peter, though well-meaning, try to encourage ‘Daniel’ to erase his past and think of his life with them as a new start. Their attempts to connect Daniel to his culture come across as superficial and his confused reaction to these attempts shows us that it is often not enough to just mean well.

We are also told Polly’s story – of how she came to America to seek a better life for herself and her then unborn child. Her experiences are just as well described as Deming’s, and the way their stories interlink and speak to each other give us an even better understanding of these characters and their lives.

The plot itself is a slow burner and there are no big twists, but it is subtle and quietly heart-wrenching all the same. Ko does a fantastic job of making the experiences of her characters accessible and authentic.

Although there were some plot holes (one big one in particular, in my opinion – I won’t spoil it, but I’m just not sure how it’s possible that no one ever found out how Polly disappeared), I can forgive that for the sake of the story overall.

Lisa Ko’s examination of outsider anxiety and the struggle between clashing identities is thoroughly immersive. This book took me by complete surprise – it wasn’t the story I expected when I first picked it up, but I am so glad to have read it.

This is not just a story about the immigrant experience, it is about a mother and a son who are ripped apart – it is human and it is raw. I couldn’t put it down.

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