Reviews of The Leavers by Lisa Ko

The Leavers

by Lisa Ko

The Leavers by Lisa Ko X
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
  • Critics' Opinion:

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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2017, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2018, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Janet Garber
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About this Book

Book Summary

Finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction.

Named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, Bustle, and Electric Literature, Lisa Ko's debut novel is essential reading for our times.

One morning, Deming Guo's mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an "all-American boy." But far away from all he's ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother's disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It's the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he's loved has been taken away - and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

This powerful debut is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. "What are you waiting for, Kid? It's cold out."

He stood in the doorway of PS 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. "Did you get off work early?" It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn't usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. "Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment." Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn't tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn't call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn't have to worry about letting anyone ...

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  • award image

    PEN/Bellwether Prize
    2016

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

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Whatever answers the reader comes to, she will appreciate the beautiful and layered portrayal of these characters, the colorful imagery of the landscape and story, and the wake-up call to the fate of immigrants and adoptees yesterday, today and in the future...continued

Full Review (819 words).

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(Reviewed by Janet Garber).

Media Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
When Deming Guo was 11, his Chinese immigrant mother, Polly, left for work at a nail salon and never returned. In alternating perspectives, this heart-wrenching literary debut tells both of their stories. Grade: A

Janet Maslin, New York Times
This wrenching and all-too-topical debut novel picks up the life of an 11-year-old American-born boy on the day his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, disappears ... Ko uses the voices of both the boy and his birth mother to tell a story that unfolds in graceful, realistic fashion and defies expectations.

New York Times Book Review
Ambitious ... Lisa Ko has taken the headlines and has reminded us that beyond them lie messy, brave, extraordinary, ordinary lives.

O, The Oprah Magazine (Favorite Books of 2017)
Here is imperative reading: a vivid fictional exploration of what it means to belong and what it feels like when you don't ... Ko gives us an unsparing portrait of the resilience and grit it takes to risk everything to break free of tradition and start over in a foreign land.

People (Book of the Week)
"[A] dazzling debut ... Filled with exquisite, heartrending details, Ko's exploration of the often-brutal immigrant experience in America is a moving tale of family and belonging.

Kirkus Reviews
This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous specificity.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Ko's writing is strong, and her characters, whether major or minor, are skillfully developed. Readers who enjoy thoughtfully told relationship tales by authors such as Lisa See, Jamie Ford, and Nadia Hashimi will appreciate.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Ko's stunning tale of love and loyalty - to family, to country - is a fresh and moving look at the immigrant experience in America, and is as timely as ever.

Booklist
Though obviously skillfully written - it's a winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction - the book can sometimes be difficult to read, thanks to its bleak subject matter, which, nevertheless, is reflective of today's reality. Those who are interested in closely observed, character-driven fiction will want to leave room for The Leavers on their shelves.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
“There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko's novel beautifully written, ambitious, and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live in, The Leavers is required reading.

Author Blurb Barbara Kingsolver
The Leavers is courageous, sensitive, and perfectly of this moment.

Author Blurb Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion
In writing about Polly and her son Deming, Ko captures one family's unique experience of becoming American while also exposing the loss of status, economic desperation, physical endangerment, and psychological grit of the undocumented worker as well as the alienation, double consciousness, mobility, and comparative access of the first generation.

Author Blurb Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman
The Leavers is about the bonds between parents and children and the many pulls of home. It was a book I did not want to end.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Detention Centers

Texas Border Detention CenterIn Lisa Ko's The Leavers, one of the female characters is abruptly transported to the fictional Ardsleyville immigration detention center. She is interned in an unheated room with other women, glaring lights on overhead 24/7. She's fed inedible mush, given minimal time outside, and is usually shackled. No attempts are made to secure her legal advice or help her contact her family, and she isn't allowed visitors and doesn't know the whereabouts of her young child. The reader knows her motives, and knows of her hard work ethic and love for her son. She is not a violent criminal – her only crime was hiring a smuggler to sneak her into the country.

The character is fictional. But her plight is true.

Detainment has been a part of ...

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