Blog Tour: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Today is my slot on the blog tour for The Leavers by Lisa Ko.

Friday 27

About the Book:

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, goes to her job at a nail salon – and never comes home. No-one can find any trace of her.
With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate, with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.
Told from the perspective of both Daniel – as he grows into a directionless young man – and Polly, Ko’s novel gives us one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heart-wrenching choice after another.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. Of identity. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own, when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

My Review:

The Leavers gives you all of the feelings from the very opening pages. Deming’s confusion and realisation that his mother isn’t coming back and that he is going to be adopted is heart-breaking to read. Initially, I found it difficult to empathise with Polly. Reading the story from Deming’s viewpoint means we don’t initially get to hear her side of the story.

Deming has been adopted by white couple Kay and Peter. They rename him Daniel. At times they seem harsh and uncaring towards Daniel, but we get an insight into how they came to adopt Daniel and their own struggles. We see how desperate Kay is to become a mother, how much she wants to do the right thing by Daniel, and how hurt she is when she learns about Daniel’s birth mother.

Daniel’s story is told partly in the present, where he is a recovering gambling addict living on his friend’s couch and getting by playing music. He is constantly disappointing his parents who want him to follow in their footsteps and become a professor at the renowned Carlough. He has alienated his childhood friend, Angel, and he thinks a lot about his birth mother and his earlier life. Daniel’s earlier life is recounted alongside his current life, so we slowly start to piece together what happened to Deming / Daniel and how he came to find himself in his current situation.

Daniel is a very confused adult. He feels he doesn’t belong anywhere. He turned to gambling and is in a financial mess. When he gets the chance to be in touch with his mother, it changes everything for him. Might he finally have a chance to find out what happened?

We then get to hear some of Polly’s side of the story, told as though she is explaining her life to her son. At first she seems selfish, but we slowly come to understand her situation. Alongside Polly, we experience her fear of being a young pregnant girl, living illegally in a foreign country. We see how she wants to do the best for her son, but lacks the resources to give him what he deserves. We get a taste of what maternity laws and care is like in China and how difficult it was for her to be an unmarried mother both there and in the US. When she joins the story she is back in China and happily married to a man who knows nothing about her son.

One of the things I most loved about Lisa’s writing was that none of her characters are completely likeable or unlikable, they all have their faults and they all make us feel sympathy for the difficult things they have endured. None of them has had an easy life. They are all very unique and well-explored and we are left in no doubt about what motivates and troubles each of them.

This is a beautiful story about what it means to be family and to have somewhere you belong, and also how lost you can be when you cannot be sure of these things. I spent a lot of the story wishing I could reach into the pages and hug the characters, or do something to ease their pain a little.

The Leavers is an outstanding novel and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to read about complicated families and the effects of childhood on our adult lives.

About the Author:

Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction and won the 2016 PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Brookyln Review, and extensively elsewhere. Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhatton Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Centre, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthorden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Centre, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.
Lisa can be found on Twitter at @iamlisako and on her website: lisa-ko.com

The Leavers is available in paperback from 26th April, and I highly recommend you all get your hands on a copy!

Many thanks to Little Brown who provided a proof of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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