Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Leavers: A Morally Complex Immigrant Tale

Lisa Ko's absolutely heart-wrenching debut novel, The Leavers, is a terrific exploration of both the cruelty of our immigration system and also how difficult it is for those coming to the U.S. to find opportunity to actually find that opportunity. Ko's novel won the Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction last year — novelist Barbara Kingsolver's annual award for a previously unpublished manuscript that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. It's amazingly worthy recipient — this is a book that needs to be in the world!

The story is about Polly Guo, a Chinese immigrant, who, in the first few pages of the novel, disappears, leaving behind her 11-year-old son Deming. No one has any idea what happened to her, not her boyfriend Leon, or anyone else who knew her. So, because Leon (a Chinese immigrant as well, who then returns to China, ostensibly to search for Polly) and then his sister Vivivan can't afford to care for him, Deming is put up for adoption and brought in by a well-meaning middle-aged white couple, who moves Deming away from his NYC home. Again, with only the best intentions, they change his name to Daniel, so he'll fit in better in their small, predominately white college town in upstate New York.

Even in the opening pages of the novel, we get a good glimpse of Polly's character: She's a strong-willed, outspoken woman who constantly strives for a better life for herself and her son, despite the obstacles thrown up in front of her. At the time she disappears, she is contemplating taking a job at a restaurant in Florida, and she's been trying to convince Leon to go with her. But both he and Deming are resistant, not wanting to leave their lives in NYC. So there's a huge question: Did she abandon her son and her relationship for a better life for herself? Or did something else happen?

The rest of the novel alternates between two threads of story. We learn more about the circumstances under which Polly came to America: As a young woman, after moving from her tiny village to the huge city of Fuzhou, and getting a taste of big city life and opportunity, Polly took out a massive loan from a Chinese loan shark to come to the U.S, leaving her father behind. Ensconced in a tiny, all-Chinese-immigrant apartment in New York City, she goes to work at a factory, doing a similar job she did in Fuzhou, but for much better pay. Oh yeah, and there's a big caveat: she's pregnant. Needless to say, life isn't easy, and when Deming arrives, she loves him, though she wasn't totally sure she wanted him (planting the seed of doubt in our minds — might she really have abandoned him?), and life gets even harder.

For Daniel, as a 21-year-old struggling musician and failed college student living with his friend Roland in New York City, life isn't easy either, but in a different way. Despite an ugly online poker addiction which has ruined his life and alienated some of his friends, he still has the safety net of his adopted family, who keep urging him to go to back to school, and pull strings for him so that he can. But as he gets more disillusioned with his adopted parents trying to control his life, he begins to wonder about his mother — and begins to takes steps to try to find her.

The revelations come fast and furious as the novel nears its end, and even once you and know and understand what happened, you're still not quite sure what to think about these characters, their motivations, and why they did what they did. It's the best kind of novel: One that really makes you hunker down for a good think once you're done.

One of my favorite novels of last year was Imbolo Mbue's Behold The Dreamers, a story about Cameroonian immigrants struggling to make ends meet in America. One of the strengths of that novel is its moral complexity — how there are no real winners, mostly losers because of our broken immigration system. And The Leavers explores similar themes, though I think I actually liked this one more: It's one of my favorites of the year so far: A timely, thought-provoking, immensely entertaining novel!


  1. Great review! I've been circling around this book, trying to decide whether I should read it -- and your review put me positively in the "Yes" camp.

  2. I loved this book for much the same reasons you did. It's so complex and all of the characters make mistakes or sometimes do the wrong thing. Deming was hard to like at times but what he'd gone through was so unimaginable. I'm planning to read Behold The Dreamers soon, so glad to see the comparison!