...[an] achingly insightful, gorgeously redemptive debut ... Although Ko began writing Leavers in 2009, headlines regarding immigrants have hardly changed: round-ups, detention, deportation, separated families – especially tragic are recent international adoptees deported as adults because of legal loopholes to a birth country they left as children . Beyond the desensitizing media coverage, Ko gives faces, (multiple) names, and details to create a riveting story of a remarkable family coming, going, leaving…all in hopes of someday returning to one another.
In focusing on a bewildered young victim, The Leavers follows a convention of the protest novel genre; Ko dramatizes the personal—a family torn apart—in order to draw attention to a structural social problem. And Deming’s utter ignorance of that social problem looks like an inspired way around the sentimentality and thudding moralism that haunt the genre. Deming’s side of the story could easily have been dominated by a heavy-handed sense of despair about the immigration system’s injustices. Instead, in his mind, he’s a child who has lost a parent. Politics aside, Ko implies, that’s all that should matter. Somehow, though, Ko’s choice doesn’t quite rescue her young character from the genre’s signature pitfalls. Her evocations of Deming’s plight frequently swerve into freighted cliché ... Ko’s compelling book is about a woman who has done lots of things wrong, and lots of things right, and has mostly lived as best she could.
Thoroughly researched and ambitious in scope, Ko’s book ably depicts the many worlds Deming’s life encompasses...It is impossible not to root for a boy so foundationally unmoored by circumstance ... Yet rather than mine this richly unsettling territory, Ko contrives things such that not all Polly’s actions — including her effective abandonment of Deming — turn out to be her fault. Is hers a cost-free freedom? And why is her penchant for freedom made so much of, if it is without consequence? Where Deming’s story, too, eventually devolves into a conventional narrative of a young person learning to follow his bliss, it’s hard not to see this book as one that takes risks but then hedges its bets ... It is still heartening to see a novel put a human face on migration, and perhaps in future books, this budding novelist’s true promise will be realized. Meanwhile, Lisa Ko has taken the headlines and reminded us that beyond them lie messy, brave, extraordinary, ordinary lives.