editor's choice



 ‘Better to be the one who leaves than the one who’s left behind.’


‘You think?’”


–Polly/Peilan responding to Leon


Following its publication in America, Lisa Ko’s quietly powerful novel, The Leavers, received well-deserved critical acclaim. Now, as the launch title in Dialogue Books’ exciting new list, it will reach far wider audiences. Thankfully.

The Leavers opens with Chinese illegal immigrant Polly Guo living in New York with Deming, her young US-born son Working all hours, she is barely getting by and is cowed by the huge debt she owes to the people who brought her over to America.

Sharing a tiny flat with her new ‘family’ – boyfriend Leon, his sister, Vivian, and nephew, Michael, also Deming’s best friend and ‘brother’ –  Polly craves a better life for herself and her son. They have already endured a long separation – Polly was forced to send Deming back to China as a baby to live with her father. Now, reunited with him in America, she is excited by the prospect of a potential new start in Florida, something neither Deming nor Leon wants. Then, one day, Polly vanishes.

Years later, Deming is now Daniel, the adopted son of two white American academics, and the birth mother he believes abandoned him is a long buried memory. Circumstances put them back in touch – and so begins Daniel/Deming’s journey to finding his true self, while discovering the reasons why his mother seemingly chose to absent herself from his life.

Told from both Deming/Daniel and Polly/Peilan’s perspectives, and moving between America and China, The Leavers tackles huge themes – immigration, displacement, disempowerment, identity, isolation and the concept of what is family. All the characters, not just the two main protagonists, deal with the often distressing, life-changing events thrown at them – done to them – in a very pragmatic, almost detached manner. What happens, happens, and they just have to find some way through.

Perhaps it is this lack of sentimentality in the way that Ko delivers their stories that lends the book greater authenticity and weight – and she somehow does this, while endowing many of Polly’s actions, and to some extent, Kay’s, with nobility and grace.

While many may find The Leavers a particularly timely book, given the recent and ongoing events in Trump’s America, immigration, legal or not – willing or not – has always been a contentious issue. Ko’s beautifully crafted novel just serves to shine a well-needed, thoughtfully placed spotlight on it.



The Leavers | Lisa Ko | Dialogue Books | May 2018 | paperback | £8.99


Acknowledgements: Quoted text p. 217 The Leavers © Lisa Ko 2017. Image © The Literary Shed 2018. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved. Thank you to Grace Vincent at Little, Brown for sending us a copy of the book.


Also of interest:A tale of “Jews and Shoes” in modern China, Spencer Wise’s debut novel‘; ‘20 books this summer challenge – lovely words‘, No 1 on the list; ‘Soundings – in search of one father’s war‘ (interview, artist Kate Gritton); ‘The stark beauty of William Shaw’s Salt Lane‘; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper –indie publisher, Orenda, does it again‘; ‘Elder’s last stand – John Harvey’s Body and Soul;  ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’.


This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.