wKo’s The Leavers has rightly gained plaudits all over the shop; it is a moving exploration of identity and belonging in a world which is both shrinking, thanks to myriad forms of communication, and in which it is still possible to lose someone for years. In the central relationship Ko examines the effect of a parent’s absence on the formation of a child’s identity. Adopted by a white couple, Deming becomes Daniel and undergoes an uneasy form of assimilation, struggling to know who he is or, perhaps more pertinently, who he wants to be.
The novel moves between New York, upstate Ridgeborough, and China, charting the lives of Deming and his mother at different times in their lives. Both inhabit vulnerable spaces in American life and both must negotiate others’ expectations and, equally, others’ kindnesses. Deming, a product of his upbringing, is not always likeable but is always believable, and I found myself rooting for him throughout. Ko pulls off the difficult task of showing us the devastating impact of officialdom and prejudice on a family without ever sinking into sentimentality and, like Deming’s mother, the novel has a strong-willed determination to look at life in an unflinching and honest manner.
Essentially, this is a reminder that our lives can be suddenly affected by the choices or decisions of others. Ko is brilliant at bringing homes and neighbourhoods to life, with all their attendant characters and quirks, to show Deming’s attempts to fit into each new stage of his life. Deming is eleven when he is transplanted to ‘Planet Ridgeborough’. The newly-named Daniel poignantly decides he has been sent on a mission to this new world, ‘He was not aware of the length of his assignment, only that one day, he would be sent home. This was how he got himself through the hours.’ When people leave, other people are forced to wait, and Ko focuses on at how people survive this waiting, this sense of being stuck, often against their will. Whilst Daniel frustrates those who make up his new life, the reader is all too aware of the sheer effort actually being Daniel takes.
I loved Deming’s mother, Polly/Peilan. She appears as something of a shadowy figure at first, seen from Deming’s perspective, and from the start the reader knows she will soon disappear, ‘The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school.’ As a young woman, an undocumented immigrant, in a new country, she is vulnerable, and this novel is a testament to the difficulties immigrants can face. Later, much later, we finally hear her story and this element moved me immensely – Ko gives us a brave and courageous woman who tries to survive difficult, and often cruel, situations.
The Leavers is a powerful and moving read, handling as it does complex relationships with a confident hand and an assured tone. Ko is an exciting new voice in literature and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.
Thanks to Grace Vincent at Little, Brown for my review copy.
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