Restless immigrant mother-son journey makes ‘The Leavers’ a timely, touching story

In an interview in the online journal Drunken Boat, when she was named fiction editor, Lisa Ko said that for her, “fiction is always political.” Fittingly, her debut novel won the most recent PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, an award established in 2000 by Barbara Kingsolver.

“The Leavers” is as politically topical as it is sensitive. It is also uneven, but when good, it is excellent: compelling, well-realized, gritty and complicated. This mother-son novel is a story of the trickiness of transracial adoption, of being immigrants and of finding one’s own way.

Deming Guo is the son of Polly, a plucky, fast-talking, fast-walking, profane character who defies stereotypes about mothers. “There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled,” Ko writes.

When the novel opens, Polly and Deming are living in a Bronx apartment with Polly’s boyfriend, Leon, and his sister, Vivian, and her son, Michael, a year younger than Deming.

Although the apartment is cramped, Deming is happy there. The bustling building is noisy, but Deming finds the cacophony of languages and chatter comforting.

The apartment is anchored by a big couch that Polly thinks is gaudy, but Deming likes, seeing “worlds in its patterns.” Polly works as a manicurist in a nail salon called Hello Gorgeous, and she dreams of bigger things.

About the couch, Polly says: “When I manage my own salon, the first thing I’m going to do is get rid of that thing. … You come home one day, it’ll be gone.”

But eventually Deming’s mother is the one who goes missing. Because the restless Polly has been talking about taking a waitressing job in Florida, Deming assumes she has decamped for the Sunshine State.

Six months after Polly disappears, Vivian, strapped for funds, takes Deming to a social services agency. This isn’t the first time Deming has been separated from his mother.

Before Polly was Polly, she was Peilan from Minjiang, China, the daughter of a fisherman. Her father raised Deming from age 1 to almost 6, while Peilan (dubbed Polly by a roommate) worked as a seamstress in a New York City factory. After her father’s sudden death in rural China, mother and son were reunited and moved into the crowded Bronx apartment.

This time, Deming is taken in as a foster child by Peter and Kay, academics at a small college in upstate New York, and it is with this well-meaning couple that the novel breaks down.

Ko does a good job of contrasting the difference between noisy New York City and the sleepy small town where Deming finds himself in a white house five times larger than the Bronx apartment. But Kay and Peter are cardboard characters, speaking in strained, clichéd dialogue that matches the author’s arm’s-length relationship to them, veering between academic jargon like “essentialist” and crude colloquialisms like “bad elements.”

Deming becomes Daniel Wilkinson when he moves in with Peter and Kay. But he never quells the feeling of not belonging and of being both “too visible and invisible,” yearning for his lively mother. Still, Kay and Peter adopt Daniel.

Living in a big house, in his own room with a shelf of Condensed Classics that includes “Oliver Twist,” he grows into an adolescent. With his friend Roland Fuentes — the only other kid of color in his school — he forms a pop punk band. Daniel then becomes a college dropout with a gambling addiction.

On the outside he is Daniel, on the inside, Deming. He returns to New York City, where he was once a happy child.

Polly also has a dual existence. Unknown to her son, she was arrested in a raid at the nail salon. After 14 grueling months in a Texas detention center, she was deported to China. Polly, however, never stopped yearning for her son.

Daniel flails about as a would-be musician, a disappointment to himself and his adoptive parents, until he stays briefly with Polly in China and learns her story of reinvention. Their reunion is freeing for both.

Told through third person in the Deming/Daniel sections, and in first person in the Peilan/Polly parts, “The Leavers” is a layered story of leaving, by choice and by force, and of returning to a place that one can find only for oneself: home.

Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and reviewer living in Topeka, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

“The Leavers,” by Lisa Ko (338 pages; Algonquin Books; $25.95)