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The Leavers

I just finished listening to Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, a novel long-listed for the 2017 National Book Award. The story is about a mother and son who go back and forth between China and New York, leaving the cities and each other behind. Both must leave places and people who love them to figure out why they feel so lost and restless. Ko tells a timely story about immigration and migration, deportation and abandonment and the toll they take, in this case, on Polly Guo, a mother born in a small Chinese village, and her son Deming, born in a huge American city. Both are “leavers,” though for different reasons.

Polly strives to test herself, prove her mettle by starting over again and again. She searches for herself by searching for new opportunities. Deming, adopted by an American family at eleven and renamed Daniel, is restless, too. Unlike his mother, he becomes a leaver because he is lost, and must search for his identity, a Chinese-American with two mothers, neither appreciating the solace he takes, the energy he gets from music.

Ko tries to capture his inner, musically-charged life using the richness, and vibrancy of color—as if he is a synesthete (or perhaps it is she herself) who hears the colors, sees them, feels them deeply. At times, Deming’s protracted search for himself into his early twenties is tiresome, and I can’t help but wonder if my sense of weariness was heightened by the narrator of the audio book. Her voice added earnestness to the prose, emphasized a feeling of angst, which is unfortunate. Writers work very hard to avoid this feeling, never want to be seen as too earnest.

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