The prose is great, but I’ve grown bored with self destructive characters.
After reading five consecutive historical novels it’s refreshing to pick up a book set in the 21st Century. The Leavers isn’t just a debut novel it’s also a finalist for the National Book Award and won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize.
The PEN/Bellwether prize is for manuscripts (not finished novels) that deal with the issue of social justice and how it impacts on relationships.
Knee Jerk Observations
You’re happily reading a book about a Chinese boy, in America, who is abandoned by his undocumented mother and then you’re hit in the face by the most scintillating prose:
I don’t want to say that there’s a maturity to Lisa Ko’s prose because it sounds condescending and patronising. But her writing is so assured. She captures the awkwardness and anxiety of being in a foster home to people who genuinely care even if they are mildly and accidentally racist. For example Deming Guo’s foster parents, who are wealthy and white, immediately change his name to Daniel Wilkinson because they feel he will fit in better at school.
But they do mean well and there is this wonderful moment when Peter, Deming’s foster father introduces Deming to the magic of vinyl. It reignites Deming’s love for all things musical:
I haven’t entirely escaped the historical novel. The Leavers has a flashback set in China in the 1970s.
Could also be the 80s.
The flashback – actually it might be the 90s – is told in first person by Deming’s mother. At one point she incredously wonders how she could have become pregnant having only had sex that one, and only, time. What were the chances she wonders in disbelief:
Very likely I want to yell back. Doesn’t she know that fictional characters are fifty times more likely to fall pregnant than people in the real world.
Seriously, there needs to be an academic study or doctoral thesis into this phenomena: How often do characters in literary novels fall pregnant the first time they shag. And how does this compare with pregnancy rates in the real world.
It really is far too easy these days to make fun of Millennials:
With that dumpster gag Ko pushes it maybe a tad too far.
The Gist Of It…
As much as I enjoy Lisa Ko’s prose and as much as I appreciate a novel about immigration and the adoption of children from other cultures I have struggled to engage with The Leavers.
There’s such an ease to the writing that reading the book has not been a chore. (I no longer finish novels where each word is a hot poker to the eye). And yet, I’ve been easily distracted while reading The Leavers, whether it’s a Twitter or Facebook notification or the delight of watching fan-made Doctor Who trailers. Mostly this is because I’m tired of characters who, for whatever reason, are self-destructive. Deming’s justification for becoming a gambling addict, a thief, a college dropout and a poor excuse for a friend make perfect sense given his less than ideal childhood. A mother abandoning you is going to leave scars compounded by being handed over to a well meaning but culturally clueless white couple. And yet as Deming continued to making stupid decisions, kept letting people down, kept finding ways to sabotage himself, I found that if he’d stopped giving a shit so had I.
The one plus is that a significant chunk of the book is from Deming’s mother’s perspective and while we initially view her unsympathetically as a woman who abandoned her son, as her reasons become clearer we can’t help but engage with her. Polly’s story is the true highlight of the novel.
Given it’s won an award and is a finalist for the National Book Award I’m sure this lack of engagement is a minority view.
Having said that this is a fantastic review by Gish Jen who was also left wanting more from the novel but expresses far more interesting and articulate reasons than I have.
On the prose alone I would certainly check out more fiction from Lisa Ko.
That’s a 6.5/10 from me.