Daniel Wilkinson is a musician in his early twenties living in New York, the only child of two successful American academics. His parents want him to go back to college; Daniel wants to keep on writing songs with his best friend, Roland, in the hope that their band, Psychic Hearts, will break out on the club scene. Deming Guo is the eleven-year-old son of a Chinese immigrant mother who works in a nail salon. Born in the US but having spent his early childhood in China, he now feels he fits into the Fuzhounese community in the part of the Bronx where he lives with his mother, Polly (Peilan), her boyfriend, Leon, Leon’s sister, Vivian, and her son, Michael. However, when Polly abruptly disappears, Deming is eventually put into foster care, adopted, and renamed. As he adjusts to his new life as Daniel, Deming never leaves him: ‘Deming wouldn’t have the scar on his right forearm that Daniel had gotten from skateboarding with Roland in eighth grade. While Deming was growing up in Chinatown and the Bronx, was Daniel hibernating, asleep in Planet Ridgeborough?… Daniel had lay [sic] dormant in Deming until adolescence, and now Deming was a hairball tumor jammed deep in Daniel’s gut. Or Deming had never left Rutgers Street [his old home in the Bronx]; he’d been here all along.’
The Leavers, Lisa Ko’s wonderful debut novel, recalls Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut Harmless Like You, which also deals with the reunion of an adult son with the mother who left him in New York long ago, although in Buchanan’s novel, the mother is Japanese and left her son when he was too young to remember her. Thinking about the two novels together made me reflect on the reader’s empathy. By any measure, Polly is less culpable than Yuki, the mother in Harmless Like You; she went to great lengths to access abortion when pregnant with Deming, so has ultimately been landed with a child she never chose to have, and, as we discover later in the novel, the reasons behind her abandonment of Deming are not what they seem. In contrast, Yuki exercises much greater agency when she chooses to leave her son, Jay. However, The Leavers starts by placing the young Deming’s perspective front and centre, whereas Harmless Like You focuses on the teenage Yuki’s struggles to be regarded as an artist despite the fact she’s both female and Japanese. Initially, then, I sympathised with Deming and Yuki more than Polly and Jay.
What The Leavers does so well, therefore, is to deconstruct our preconceptions about motherhood – especially Chinese motherhood – by forcing us to question why we feel like we’re on Deming’s ‘side’. Interestingly, Polly and Yuki’s choices of vocation may come into play here; Yuki is a visual artist, whereas Polly does manicures, and later becomes an English educator. As I discussed in my review of Convenience Store Woman, the automatic reverence Brits and Americans tend to extend to those working in the arts is pretty problematic. Polly’s ability to keep her family financially afloat is nothing short of amazing – and she’s also pretty brilliant at painting nails. The book is also scathing about the half-hearted efforts of Deming’s adoptive parents, Kay and Peter, to understand who he is and what he’s going through.
While some of the sections dealing with the tension between Daniel’s music career and his adoptive parents’ desire for him to get a college degree are a bit simplistic, The Leavers is, on the whole, a satisfyingly complex novel. Ultimately, it asks what we lose when we leave our closest connections for a chance of a better life, when ‘better’ is defined as more middle-class, more financially stable, more outwardly respectable. In this, it recalls Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and also picks up some of the questions raised by Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) about where you belong when you feel you don’t belong anywhere. Both Deming’s and Daniel’s final answers are beautifully moving.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.