I received an e-arc of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.
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 form 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.
This is a quietly powerful book about identity and acceptance. At first, I struggled a bit to get into this. The pace is fairly slow and I was probably not in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate the depth of this book when I started it. I debated with myself whether I should just DNF, but then felt drawn back into the story and I am truly glad I stuck with it until the end.
I can in all honesty say that for most (if not all) the book, I profoundly disliked Deming/Daniel. He is a difficult character to accept, but at the same time he is a difficult character to relate to, in light of his experiences and profound suffering. Moving along with him, it slowly becomes clearer and clearer that Deming is essentially a lost child, suffering the loss of his mother and of his own identity. No matter how many years have passed, he cannot accept his situation, but even more so, he cannot accept this new persona that was imposed on him by his adoptive parents.
Polly’s disappearance hangs as a permanent shadow of Deming’s life, as hurtful as it is incomprehensible. When we readers are finally made aware of the truth behind it, it is tinted with the quiet pain of those who are used to seeing things go differently from what they had hoped. Through the struggle and long-lasting pain of Polly and Deming, this book provides a striking commentary of modern society, and the human impact of immigration and integration policies.
Extremely delicate in its weaving of the tale and in its social commentary, The Leavers brings to light the reality of what it means to be foreign, to be different in a society that values appearance and homogeneity above all else; it explores the struggle to rebuild your life from scratch without losing sight of where you come from and who you are; and above all else, it doesn’t shy away from the pain and suffering of losing those dearest to you and what it means to never lose hope.