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The Leavers by Lisa Ko


What makes us who are with regard to our cultural identity? Is our identity determined by our biological parents, the people who raise us, the community around us, our own actions and feelings? These are just a few of the questions raised by Lisa Ko in her book The Leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Published in: 2017
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: 4.5 stars
Find it/buy it here: The Leavers

Thank you to Algoquin Books and netgalley for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest review.

One morning eleven-year old Deming Guo’s mother leaves the house and disappears without a trace.  After a series of additional abandonments, Deming is adopted by a white American couple who rename him Daniel Wilkinson in an effort to ensure that he becomes assimilated as an “all-American” boy. The book is told from alternating perspectives of Deming and his mother. In the second half of the book we discover what happened to Deming’s mother and our hearts act for both Deming and his mother.

On the surface, the novel is about the story of Deming and his mother. It’s about how Deming copes with his abandonment, how he tries to understand his own background, and what happened to his mother. Yet, the book is about so much more than just the surface story in its exploration of cultural identify, belonging, and boundaries between cultures and countries. The people in Deming’s life are all good people at heart who love him, and act in ways they think best for him. His adoptive parents want him to assimilate into American culture because they think that will make him happier and more successful. But the the ways in which they conceptualize happiness and success don’t necessarily work for Deming. And Deming looks Chinese, speaks with an accent, and remembers being raised by his biological mother and his Chinese roots.

The book is filled with flawed characters and many times I wanted to reach into the book and shake some sense into Deming. Yet at the same time, I can empathize and truly connect with Deming and his mother. They both make mistakes (as do his adoptive parents and his friends) but those mistakes are understandable given the circumstances of their lives.

The Leavers is exactly the sort of book that I often find myself drawn to read. I was born in the US to a bicultural family — my mother being Costa Rican and my father US American. I lived in the US, England (where I spent my formative years) and Costa Rica. Issues of cultural identity are important to me because they have been integral in my own life.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot because part of the satisfaction in reading this book is discovering what happened to his mother. I will say that really enjoyed this book. It was brilliantly written, at times humorous and other times emotionally subtle. There’s a lot going on in this book and multiple themes centering on how we form who we are and how we conceptualize family and culture. Ko also does a wonderful job painting a beautiful picture of the relationship between Deming and his mother – capturing snapshots of wonderfully touching memories and experiences in his early childhood.

I highly recommend this book!

Want to try it for yourself? You can find your copy here: The Leavers

Have you read this book? What did you think? Are you interested in reading it? 

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I just finished this book and I loved it! I did get frustrated with Deming at times – and in a way with all of the characters. But I agree that the relationship with Deming and his mother is described beautifully, from the very first pages. A heart-breaking read at times. I’ve been reading a lot of books lately about immigrants, and this is one I’d definitely recommend.

    Liked by 1 person

    May 8, 2017
    • I’m so glad you loved it too! I thought it was really well done.


      May 8, 2017
  2. If you are interested in that question of identity, you might want to take a look at a book by a South African writer Dalene Mathee called Fiela’s Child.


    May 11, 2017
  3. I’ve just finished reading Pachinko, and your review of The Leavers has made me appreciate the elements of cultural identity in that novel differently. The Leavers is now going on my wish list, ready for when I feel I can rebuild my TBR pile.


    May 12, 2017

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