Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Leavers, An Amazing Debut

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A front page article in today's New York Times, "Loving and Leaving America," gave me a jolt of reminder that I haven't yet written about a debut novel I finished last week that blew me away. Lisa Ko's ( "The Leavers" is an incredibly sophisticated, slow moving examination of the nuances of being an immigrant, or being born to one, in the United States today.

The voice of young Deming Guo will stay with you for a long time. Conceived in China, born in a sweat shop in New York City, then returned to China to live with his grandfather for five years, he is brought back to the United States by his mother Polly, after her father dies and she has exhausted all other options. Completely unequipped to mother a five-year-old, hiding from immigration authorities, Polly lives with her boyfriend, his sister Vivian, Vivian's son Michael, and Deming in a three room flat in Chinatown.

Ko wisely creates a seemingly unsympathetic character in Polly, at once lavishly loving and cringingly selfish, Polly is a schemer who doesn't plan to settle. She has brains, ambition, and dreams of a better life, one that frightens her less ambitious lover. When she disappears without a word, friends believe she's off to Florida to begin work managing a nail salon.

"She'll be back," they all assure Deming. But how, he wonders, could she leave without even saying goodbye?

 That question will haunt him for years. His search for answers will haunt readers who recognize that this scenario is playing out every day on the streets of our country as ICE cracks down on undocumented immigrants, breaking up families, and wrecking havoc on the psyches of the legitimate children left behind.

Eventually social services arrive and Deming Guo, a Chinese American boy, is adopted by a well-meaning but emotionally distant couple who believe that the best way for Deming to assimilate, far from the city that he loves and the only people he knows, is to become Daniel Wilkinson, all American boy. And Daniel tries, he really does. He wants to please but there's a rebellious streak there, perhaps a bit of his mother? There's also a raging anger against the woman who left him and nowhere to place that ire except against himself.

Just when you think your heart will break for Daniel and the road to self-destruction that he's on, just when you think you want to throttle Polly for pursuing her own dreams without thought to Deming's wellbeing, Ko reveals Part II of her book and we are treated to another entire novel told from Polly's point of view.

Nothing is black and white in this remarkable novel. Polly is complicated, her actions certainly worthy of analysis. But when you read her story you will, hopefully, be loath to judge. Lisa Ko has written a beautiful book about the plight of immigrants but offers no simple solutions. Awarded Barbara Kingsolver's Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, this book begs to be discussed by socially engaged readers.

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