Algonquin Press, 2017
The Leavers, a novel set in New York and Fuzhou, China, is the story of a young man’s search for his undocumented Chinese mother who leaves for work one day and disappears without a trace. Eleven years old, and now motherless, Deming Guo is eventually adopted by a well-meaning white couple who move him out of the Bronx to upstate New York. Issues of race and identity shape his teenage years, as we watch Deming (now “Daniel”) cope with memories, growing up, the aspirations and expectations of his adopted parents, and, above all, an overriding sense of loss.
Interspersed with Deming’s tale is Polly Guo’s, his mother. As the reader, we move through the book searching for an understanding as to why she has left her son, and then, when we meet her again years later, why she chooses not to seek him out as an adult. We learn of her childhood in rural China, and the escape from a marriage that has driven her pregnant and alone into America. Far from the idealized, nurturing mother, Polly is a complicated character, full of dreams and determination. Motherhood was never a deliberate choice for Polly. At one point, she even leaves the baby under a park bench and runs… she returns moments later but the horrified reader has a new understanding of her compelling, even obsessive, need for freedom.
Essentially, The Leavers is about a mother and son; what brings them together and then takes them apart. It is a struggle with life choices, determining what is wrong or right. It is a struggle between what is expected and what is desired. It is a story of both those who leave, and the effect on those who have been left.
The Leavers received the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award in Fiction. Although Ko never politicizes this novel, she was inspired by the 2009 true story of a woman from Fuzhou, China, who was arrested by immigration agents on her way to Florida in search of a job. The woman left behind a small son. Beautifully written, The Leavers stays with the reader long after the final page has been turned.