The Leavers by Lisa Ko

The Leavers - Lisa Ko

“It was a funny thing, forgiveness. You could spend years being angry with someone and then realize you no longer felt the same, that your usual mode of thinking had slipped away when you weren’t noticing.”

The Leavers by Lisa Ko tells a poignant tale of one’s identity and sense of belonging. Set in New York and China, the novel is narrated by Deming Guo and his mother, Peilan (Polly) Guo. 

Deming recounts about his mother who has been living in New York for years as an undocumented Chinese immigrant. Polly wants a better life for her son and herself. She plans move to another city where she got an offer for a job with better pay but Leon (her boyfriend) and Deming don’t want to. Polly leaves for her job one day, and never returns. Deming thinks he’s unwanted and she left him. After some months, Deming is adopted by an American couple.

Deming becomes Daniel. His adopted parents try to make him stays rooted to his Asian heritage, yet they also try to Americanize him. Daniel struggles hard to fit into his new life. He’s still coping hard for his mother’s disappearance while he tries to please his adopted parents. Adult Daniel failed to walk the path his adopted parents want him to follow. His so-called music career with his childhood friend is quite restrained. He’s addicted to gambling and losing money. One day, he receives an email from an old acquaintance about his mother. The answer he’s always looking for: why did his mother leave him?

The Leaver is such a moving story of one’s struggle with identity and belonging. However, I have a few troubles when I read it at first. The non-linear narrative and having two narrators often confuse me. Especially the abrupt changes in timeline Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 with 10 years difference. I was quite thrown off by the complete changes in Deming’s tone of narrative. I only realized later that the writer might have wanted to portray the changes from Deming to Daniel.

It’s painful to read Daniel’s incessant attempt to please others by being something he isn’t so he fails miserably cause part of him still wants to be true to himself, as well. While he’s traumatised for being abandoned with no reasons, his mother is crushed and devastated to leave him, too. She has her reasons. His adopted parents, though they can sometimes be oblivious to his Asianess, they tried their best, as well.

Personally, I think the writer also dumped more information about Daniel’s musical career than necessary. I can understand that music is part of him but in some parts, it’s a bit much. I almost put it into DNF but I gave it a chance and I’m glad I did it. What a phenomenal read it becomes as I continue reading.

Catalysed with racism towards immigrants in America, the book also explores on issues like interracial adoption, parent and child relationship. In fact, it is a classic story of forgiveness and redemption one person has to battle in his or her life. Brilliantly and vividly told, it is another unforgettable Asian-American literature.

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