Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn’t been intertwined, when a dirty, rolling bass line hadn’t induced violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn’t produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird. It wasn’t just music but also rumbling trains and rainstorms, occasional voices, a collective din.
Lisa Ko's The Leavers follows Deming Guo as he becomes Daniel Wilkinson. Deming's mother, Polly, an undocumented immigrant, disappears one day, leaving Deming behind in the Bronx. Deming is adopted by the Wilkinsons and moves upstate, leaving his old life and self behind. As Daniel grows older, pieces of Deming start to surface within him, and the novel centers around his attempts to reconcile the various versions of himself.

Deming's growing up is a little bumpy (as could be expected). He struggles with addiction and figuring out who he is is not as simple as drawing a line from one version of himself to the next. Those aspects of the novel are well written and engaging, but not particularly earth-shattering. On some level, it's a regular coming of age story. Throughout, however, Ko does shine some insight into the perils of interracial adoption, and those perils are revealed gradually and well.

If Deming's story is fairly run of the mill, Polly's is exceptional. Her ambivalence about being a mother is artfully and sympathetically portrayed, and her decisions and development throughout the novel are fascinating. While Deming/Daniel operates largely in spaces I'm familiar with, Polly's universe is totally alien to me. It's more Deming's story than Polly's, but she lends it the nuance and the depth that makes the novel worthwhile.

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