The Leavers, Lisa Ko, review: Dialogue Books' launch title is a multifaceted portrait of displacement
This acclaimed American debut is now the first book published by Little, Brown’s new British publishing imprint dedicated to inclusivity
Last year, Little, Brown Book Group here in the UK launched Dialogue Books, a new standalone imprint dedicated to inclusivity, and this month sees the release of its launch title: Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers – a finalist for last year’s National Book Award for Fiction in the US, and a rich, multifaceted portrait of displacement and the trauma of not belonging.
Eleven-year-old Deming Guo lives in the Bronx with his mother Polly, her boyfriend Leon, and Leon’s sister Vivian and her son Michael, who is Deming’s best friend. One day Polly floats the idea of her and Deming moving to Florida – she knows of a restaurant there that’s looking for waitresses, she says, and they can go visit Disney World, wouldn’t that be fun? Deming isn’t interested; he doesn’t want to leave the city or his friends.
Not long after, Polly never comes home from her job at a nail salon. No one knows where she is, Florida or otherwise. Vivian takes Deming to Child Services – “Nobody wanted him,” he thinks, steeped in the rejection and grief that soon begins to define him – and before he knows it he’s heading out of the city on his way to a new life he never wanted, complete with a new name: Daniel Wilkinson.
He’s adopted by two white, middle-class academics who live in a small town in upstate New York. They’re well meaning enough, but painfully clueless on many important points, Ko sparing no one’s blushes when she calls them out. “Issues are colour-blind,” Kay, Daniel’s new mom blindly professes, equating her own childhood experience of being a “bookworm with glasses” to the alienation he feels as the only Asian kid in the entire town.
Ten years pass, and Daniel becomes “an expert at juggling selves; he used to see Deming and think himself into Daniel, a slideshow perpetually alternating between the same two slides.” It comes as no surprise to learn that he’s struggling as a young adult, feeling pressure to live up to the expectations of others, but failing at every turn, unsure of what he wants or who he is.
It is, however, in opening up the narrative by then delving deep into Polly’s past – from the privations of her youth in rural China, her hopes for a better life for her and her son in the US, and the subsequent drudgery she encounters there, not to mention her barbaric treatment at the hands of the authorities – that Deming/Daniel’s story is revealed as simply another piece in a larger puzzle rather than the focus of the novel.
As such, The Leavers itself speaks to the broader immigrant experience in contemporary America, as well as posing interesting questions about how perhaps deciding to settle down somewhere specific is actually just as hard as making the decision to up and leave, especially if there are other people or cruel circumstances dictating your freedoms. “Maybe it wasn’t about moving to new places, but about the challenge of staying put,” Polly thinks.
A thoughtful, haunting tale that deserves the acclaim its already won in America.
‘The Leavers’ is published by Dialogue Books, £8.99