If you come away from reading The Leavers with a sense of disconnect, that’s no surprise—disconnectedness is its central theme, its structural and stylistic touchpoint, and the emotional engine driving its main characters. First-time novelist Lisa Ko impressively employs a fractured narrative to portray the plight of fractured people, but don’t expect conventional satisfactions.
The Leavers begins in the aftermath of a reunion. In New York City, eleven-year-old Deming and his mother Pelian “Polly” Guo have carved out a marginal yet seemingly stable existence, sharing a Bronx apartment as part of an informally blended family that includes Polly’s boyfriend Leon, his sister Vivian and her son Michael, who’s close to Deming’s age. It’s a comfortable life for Deming, who finds a father figure in Leon, forges a brother-like bond with Michael, and benefits from Vivian’s auxiliary maternal presence. The only strained relationship is with his mother, burdened as it is by the fact of an earlier abandonment.
Deming is both a native of New York and a relative newcomer. His childhood memories are of Minjian, a rural village in China’s Fujian province, where his mother had sent him to be raised not long after his birth. Only the death of his grandfather-caregiver lands him back in the States, where an apologetic Polly makes a habit of telling him, incongruously, “You’re my home now,” and promising never to abandon him again. Yet she does. One morning she leaves for Hello Gorgeous, the nail salon where she works as a manicurist, and never returns.
Deming’s life begins to disassemble. Powerless to answer the mystery of Polly’s disappearance, an unmoored Leon departs abruptly for China. Vivian, unable to care for both her son and Deming, makes the wrenchingly difficult decision to find “people to look after you.” The people, of course, are social workers.
Ten years later, Deming Guo is only a memory. In his place is Daniel Wilkinson, the adopted son of Kay and Peter Wilkinson, raised in Ridgeborough (population 6,525) in upstate New York. After an adolescence furnished with well-meaning parents, rewarding friendships and a closet full of Abercrombie & Fitch, Daniel has returned to New York City—ostensibly to pursue a music career, but more prosaically to work in a burrito shop, run up gambling debts, and distance himself from his now-exasperated adoptive parents. There’s a disconnectedness to his life, a psychic slip of the clutch that compels him to drop out of college, to play music he doesn’t want to play, to squander love. When Michael, his long-ago Bronx pseudo-sibling, attempts to track him down, it takes him months to reply. At last he takes up the threads of the mystery surrounding his birth mother’s disappearance, but it seems fueled not by a need for closure so much as a desire to follow her into oblivion.
It’s no spoiler to note that Polly is still alive. She soon assumes the role of the book’s intermittent narrator, interspersing a first-person account with Deming/Daniel’s third-person trials and travels. And it’s here that The Leavers seams begin to show: her thoughts range freely across continents and decades, yet she manages to maintain a near-coy core of silence about the reason for her disappearance. She has multiple opportunities to convey the truth to her son (and the reader), but repeatedly fails to do so, for no real reason other than to service the plot and save the big reveal for the book’s latter pages. Since she “didn’t want to think about” the facts behind her absence, she simply doesn’t communicate them, even when a few terse words would alleviate her son’s obvious suffering.
When the truth is revealed, it comes freighted with a general lack of agency that strains credulity. Polly, previously portrayed as a relentlessly resourceful soul striving her way illegally from Minjian to New York, decides a few forgotten and disconnected phone numbers are enough to conclude “my family was lost.” Other central figures maintain inexplicable silences. When Deming/Daniel shows up on the doorstep of his mother’s old boyfriend, Leon readily admits to knowing Polly’s fate, and even provides her current whereabouts and general address. But when it comes to telling the young man the truth about her disappearance, he remains cryptic. “Your mother, she’s complicated,” is all he explains, seemingly because the story has a few more chapters to go.
Ko isn’t the first gifted writer to over-rely on a creaky plot point—Shakespeare had some frothy business about teenage death potions—and The Leavers burnishes over its seams with strikingly original language. Snow falls in clumps “like wet laundry.” The round black sliver of a vinyl record is “what alien trees might be like if you sliced their trunks open.” The Staten Island Ferry brays ”a hippopotamus honk.” There are also genuine surprises in store: Deming/Daniel’s personal arc doesn’t end on a predictable note, nor is the mother/son relationship patly resolved. For all the challenges of the book, the real takeaway is Ko’s bristling talent. Her characters are constitutionally adverse to action, her scenes overburdened with exposition, yet a sense of engagement pervades, a soulful sincerity that pulls the reader through. Already awarded the PEN/Bellwether Prize for “socially-engaged fiction,” The Leavers stands firmly as Lisa Ko’s act of arrival.