The Leavers: A Novel
Lisa Ko’s stunning debut novel, The Leavers, criticizes the brokenness of the United States immigration system through the story of a young undocumented mother. When Peilan Guo discovers she is pregnant and that an abortion is too costly, she flees Fuzhou to avoid being forced into marriage and finds a home in a crowded New York City apartment. A decade later, Peilan, now Polly, goes to work at a nail salon but never returns; her son Deming is sent to live with a white couple in a remote town upstate. Deming, now called Daniel Wilkinson, spends his teenage years surrounded by white faces and jarring English. The hurt of his mother’s absence and her unknown whereabouts pervade his thoughts until an unexpected message from a childhood friend leads Deming to the truth about his mother’s disappearance.
The joy of The Leavers lies in the slow unraveling of Peilan’s story, which is told from alternating points of view. Audacious, inspiring, and wonderfully flawed, Peilan is an exceptionally memorable character. Ko expertly shows Deming’s struggle with living between cultures as well as his complicated feelings toward his adopted parents and biological mother. Deming’s obsession with music, which becomes his personal language in the novel, brings about immersive passages, a definite highlight. Written with gripping, unflinching prose, The Leavers is a very timely immigrant story suffused with true-to-life humor and heart.