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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Leavers (2017) by Lisa Ko


Book Review
The Leavers (2017)
 by Lisa Ko

   This strikes me as a worthy winner of the 2017 National Book Award, the third of the finalist I've read after Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Dark at the Crossing by Eliot Ackerman.  The Leavers is a bildungsroman about a young Chinese-American named Deming/Daniel, and his Mom, an illegal immigrant and pregnant teen, who is surprised when she can't get an abortion for her 7 month fetus. Fine, she says, I'll have him.  Despite The Leavers being a fairly conventional coming of age tale about the son, it is the chapters written from the Mother's perspective that stay with you.

  When Mom disappears without explanation, Deming is adopted by a well-meaning pair of childless college professors in New York City, renamed Daniel Wilkinson, and expected to "do well" by going to college, etc.  He screws this up and finds himself in China.  The denouement of The Leavers concerns the circumstances surrounding Mom's mysterious departure, although anyone with even a passing familiarity with how things work for illegal immigrants in the United States could probably guess on the first try.

  The Leavers is a firmly realistic novel- no touches of magical realism or speculative fiction here.  Ko and her editors have wielded a heavy hand- The Leavers barely covers 300 pages, and the prose is not tense- as close to the popular authors of "chick lit" as it is to "serious" literary fiction.  But I found The Leavers to be very serious, and while perhaps it isn't the most well-written book of the year, it was the most effective in terms of it's ability to create empathy for its subjects. 

  This leaves only two more books from the list of 2017 nominess for the National Book Award- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Machado.    Thus far, I'm for The Leavers to win.

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