Book Review: The Leavers

Author: Lisa Ko
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
ISBN: 9781616208042
Genre: Fiction
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I’m obviously on an #immigrantnarratives kick. I just finished reading The Leavers by Lisa Ko. The story goes between China and New York, following an undocumented Chinese mother who goes to work at a nail salon in New York City one day and doesn’t come home. She leaves behind her son, who spends 10 years thinking that his mother abandoned him. Eventually, he gets adopted by a well-meaning white couple. All the comfort and familiarity he knew growing up—speaking his mother’s native Fuzhounese, his cousin who wasn’t really his cousin but was like a brother to him—alladat, gone. Now he has to adapt to a whole new world, and a whole new name, as his white family renames him Daniel Wilkinson, relieving him of his traditional Deming Guo.

Throughout the course of the novel, we find out what happened to his mother, why she left, if she was coming back, and Deming-Daniel learns how to value and honor himself. We get a sense of a separation of selves—a Chinese self and an immigrant, American self. People name and rename themselves, personalities change with circumstance and location. It is a book about wandering, being lost, finding yourself again, despite your name or your home territory.

I was a little confused about why the voice of Polly Guo, Deming-Daniel’s mother, narrated her story in second person. When she told Deming what happened in the 10 years she was gone, I started to understand why her story was in second person. But then, in the 2nd persona account, which seemed to be directed at Deming-Daniel, she includes things Deming-Daniel says to her in the moment of the account. There’s some time and perspective weirdness there, but no one else seems bothered by it.

Aside from that, I can get down with this book. It highlights the inequalities within the immigration system and the gross way undocumented folks are treated at the hands of the US government. I recommend this book.


(Photo by Robin Lubbock)