The Leavers
by Lisa Ko
Published 2017 by Algonquin Books
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1616206888

By Noah Sanders

Lisa Ko manages to weave in a healthy pile of themes into her debut novel, The Leavers. The book manages, with an enjoyable ease, to be an immigrant story, a mystery of sorts, a coming of age novel, a story about New York City, a sideways glance at the discovery of the American Dream and even, at times, a glance into the lowest rungs of the career of a fledgling musician. What draws together all of these seemingly disparate threads is a sense of regret. The characters in The Leavers have made awful choices in the name of survival, or had those choices forced upon them, and with each decision, burdened themselves with a longing that chains them in place, unable to move forward. Ko’s main characters—the orphan Deming Guo and his mother Peilan—yearn for something else, a life untethered by their pasts. As much as The Leavers is about unchaining ourselves from what came before, it is also about the freedom in recognizing how important the experiences of the past are in shaping who we are, or what we want to be.

Ko’s novel begins in New York City with a six-year old Chinese-American boy, Deming Guo, discovering that his mother has disappeared. She, Peilan (or Polly) Guo is an illegal immigrant who has given up her cherished freedom in the name of making a life for her and her son in the nail salons and shirt factories of the bustling city. When she vanishes without explanation, Deming is moved to a small college town upstate, where he is raised by two progressive professors, Kay and Peter Wilkerson. The book jumps forward and Deming has become Daniel Wilkerson, a talented musician and gambling addict, deep in debt, failing in school and still dealing with the fallout of his mother’s disappearance nearly two decades prior. Though the search for his mother is central axis which the entire book spins, the story flits and darts into the dark corners of a Daniel’s life, one spent with only fractured memories of the mother who he believes holds the keys to discovering he really is.

Deming Guo (née Daniel Wilkerson) is a character idling through life in neutral. His mother’s surprise departure years earlier, and the drastic shift at an early age from the big city to a small, quiet town, has left him fragmented, spinning in circles, unable to find his path in the present. Ko bounces back and forth between Deming’s present day search for Polly and the past where she escapes a small fishing village in China, to give birth to her son in New York City. Both of these characters are exceptionally rendered—Polly a cigarette smoking, spitfire who loves her son but is weighed down by the responsibility that holds her back is especially well conceived—with Ko excelling at sculpting them into living, breathing creations grappling with the multiple layers of identity that seem to define them.

If Polly is held in place in the past by her own sense of obligation to her child—and Ko’s microscopic peek into what, and who, it takes to raise a child as an illegal immigrant is both harrowing and heartfelt—then Deming stumbles under the heft of other’s expectations of him. His identities—Daniel Wilkerson, Deming Guo, Chinese-American orphan, pop-rock guitarist, gambling addict—blanket him, as do his attempts and failures to live up to each, but none ever define him. In response he pushes away from everything—his friends, his adopted family, his education and his life as a musician—stumbling over and over again in an attempt to delineate himself. While Deming searches for his identity and for Polly, she hides his existence from those who populate her new life. His past is a mystery, hers a secret—both rooting them into their current places.

Ko spins a good yarn and The Leavers is a literary page turner, the mystery of the why of Polly’s disappearance dragging you from one page to a next. And though Ko shines at creating realistic motivation for even the worst of her characters’ decisions, she tends to overstuff their stories. Deming’s musical career—and the long sections about his ability to see sound as color—is well composed (as is his gambling addiction, his 10,000 dollar debt, his relationship with his adopted parents, and so on and so forth) but there’s so much, and the story of Deming and Polly so interesting, everything else feels, on occasion like undercooked distractions.

In Ko’s telling of Deming and Polly’s separate stories, we see reflections of their desire to pull themselves out from under the weight of their own choices, to free themselves from what is expected of them. Only when they come together—and Ko navigates a twisty plot with aplomb to get them there—are they able to see the full spectrum of their lives, to shake the regret for the lives that came before. In doing so, both characters are unshackled, allowed the freedom to make progress, to attend to their futures, instead of wallow in the past.

Lisa Ko will be in conversation with local Bay Area author Donia Bijan on Monday, June 5th at Books, Inc. Alameda at 7pm. For more information on that event, please click here.