The Leavers by Lisa Ko

I receive a lot of books for review from publishers, and it makes my job about a thousand times easier when I like them. The Leavers made it very easy, because not only did I like it, it also made me think.

The Leavers is about Deming, an American-born Chinese kid from the Bronx who lives with his mother, her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s sister, and her boyfriend’s sister’s son. This is less confusing than it might sound, because Lisa Ko is much better at explaining relationships than I am. 

One day Deming’s mother disappears. He’s told that she’s gone to Florida, and he can’t understand why she’d ever decide to leave him: as a single-parent-only-child dynamic, their relationship has always been close. Certain she’ll come back for him soon, Deming’s life is thrown further into disarray when he’s adopted by a white American family, who remove him from the Bronx and take him to live with them in their middle-class neighbourhood.

Although Deming stands out at first, he soon learns to fit in, and by the time he’s a young adult he has almost completely morphed into Daniel Wilkinson, the name given to him by his new parents Kay & Peter.

Disclaimer: I have never been a Chinese boy from the Bronx, suddenly immersed into a new family. I’ve never been adopted, or visibly a member of an ethnic minority (I’m Roma, but since I don’t wear my race on my skin, I get a lot of privileges associated with appearing white).

I have, however, suddenly been plunged into a new culture at precisely the age it happened to Deming. I’ve also had that feeling of needing to fit in, in order to get by, and yet wanting to remain true to who I was. I’ve had the What the fuck is going on, why can’t I talk to these people? feeling multiple times. And Lisa Ko really gets what it feels like to straddle multiple identities. On page 329 she begins a paragraph with the words “When Daniel was Deming…” with the same casual abandon with which most people would say “When Daniel was ten…” or “When Daniel lived in New York City…”

And that is what it’s like. You don’t completely forget who you were, and there are bits of your core personality that will continue to determinedly push their way through no matter how much you tell them they don’t exist anymore. But when you change your whole identity, your whole way of being, it has an undeniable impact. You become two people: the one Before and the one After. But you’re never quite either one of them, because bits of both bleed through into each other. In the words of Lisa Ko:

“It was that kind of mindfuck: to be too visible and invisible at the same time, in the ways it mattered the most.”

You start wanting people not to notice anything about you, just because it’s so exhausting to go through all the reasons for the noticeable things. You don’t want them to be interested in you, because that means you’d have to unravel the whole sordid mess again and sort through it in their presence. To show them bits of who you used to be, to trust that they’d understand that’s not who you are now, but also that it is.

“He had never known how exhausting it was to be conspicuous.”

My therapist agrees that I have “a pathological dislike of attention”. I think a lot of this springs from the issues brought up in Lisa Ko’s book: the splitting of personhood until it’s fractured into distinct Before and After states, and how even when you’ve finally been someone consistently for years, and you’re pretty sure that’s the person you’re going to be for the rest of your life, there’s still this past-stuff that other people wouldn’t understand. “But that’s so not you!” they’d exclaim, not knowing that as far as they’d be concerned, you’re not you either.

So, Ko gets it, and I like that she gets it. I can only imagine that if you’re an actual American-born Chinese kid who’s been half-raised in their own culture and then adopted by parents from a contrasting cultural background, she’d get it even more.

The only thing I found slightly jarring was the change in voice part of the way through. We suddenly switch from hearing Deming’s point of view in the third person, to hearing his mother’s in the first person. This confused me at first, but I get why it was necessary to the book: it was important to understand his mother’s perspective and it ended up weaving their stories together nicely.

Aside from the momentary jarring, though, Ko also has a beautiful writing style. I’d like to read more of her books in the future, because I imagine it’s the kind of beauty that will grow over time, getting better and better with each book.

“Ten winters passed.”
“he missed Roland… missed him like subways and rooftops and singing”

So, yeah. Read The Leavers. Especially if you’ve been several people in your life, because you’ll relate to it a lot.

Check out the other bloggers reviewing The Leavers on this blog tour today:

The Leavers will be published by Little, Brown on 26th April 2018.

I received a free copy of an advance proof from the publisher in exchange for a review. In reality it’s difficult to tell if this affected my view of it, because arguably we’re all affected by every experience we have, but suffice it to say I’ve trashed review copies I haven’t liked in the past, so I doubt it makes enough of a difference to skew my viewpoint on it. 


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