From sanctuary cities, Dreamers, and visas, to Trump’s wall, MS-13, and the Muslim ban, contemporary American politics is fixated on immigration. But policy discussions and political slogans offer little insight into the nuances of individual experience, which is where “The Leavers,’’ one of a plethora of recent immigrant novels, makes its mark.
Lisa Ko’s debut deftly illustrates the political narrative, with its sharp depictions of human smuggling, loan sharks, low-level jobs, and what may be the first ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention camp in American literature. But “The Leavers’’ is most compelling when it focuses on the emotional trajectories of undocumented Chinese immigrant Polly, its most persistent leaver, and her son, Deming.
The novel begins with Polly and Deming living in the Bronx with Polly’s boyfriend, Leon, Leon’s sister Vivian, and Vivian’s son, Michael. Deming is happy, but Polly, who has a seemingly congenital “restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled,” is antsy to leave New York for a waitress job in Florida. When Leon and Deming resist the move, Polly seems to give in, but the next day she disappears, leaving behind her son, the one person she has promised she will never leave.
Eight years later, Polly is still gone, and Deming, now Daniel, has been adopted by Kay and Peter, white college professors who live in a small town in upstate New York, where Daniel was one of two nonwhite students in his high school. Adrift and alienated, he has flunked out of college and moved to Brooklyn to play in a friend’s band, very much against his parents’ wishes. Subsequent chapters move between Polly’s and Daniel’s pasts and presents, as mother and son seek each other and themselves.
Polly, born Peilan, has spent her life leaving. As a rural Fujian teenager with few prospects, she leaves her father and their village for a factory job, income, and independence in Fuzhou, the provincial capital. Finding herself pregnant, she leaves Fuzhou and her boyfriend, returns to the village, then leaves again for New York, where she changes her name to Polly, gets a job in another factory, and gives birth to Deming. Despite the hardships she faces, from brutal working and living conditions to onerous financial burdens, Polly makes her choices — most of them — and creates a series of lives that are sufficiently satisfying until they aren’t.
Daniel, in contrast, is buffeted about by the choices of others. Polly sends him to China to live with her father when he is a toddler and brings him back to New York when her father dies. Vivian gives him up for adoption when Polly leaves. Peter and Kay pluck him out of his life into theirs, even giving him a new name. At home nowhere and ever fearful of further abandonment, Daniel careens between uncertainty and self-discovery, a desperate desire to please — his parents, his bandmate Roland, his Chinese adoptee friend, Angel — and flat-out rebellion. His youthful angst is at once archetypal — “If only he had the right clothes, knew the right references, he would finally become the person he was meant to be” — and powerfully grounded in his own history.
Ko is at her best when vividly braiding together Polly and Daniel’s experiences of immigration and adoption, and dramatizing their psychological journeys, Polly’s shaped by her insistent desire to move on, Daniel’s by his search for a place he can stay. But if the bonds between the novel’s Chinese characters are dynamic and emotionally affecting, Peter and Kay, along with Angel’s adoptive parents, are essentially stereotypes, with their L.L. Bean wardrobes, Prius, and predictably gendered parenting — Peter rigid and disapproving, Kay anxious and conciliatory. The novel’s language also sometimes veers unfortunately toward cliché, especially at heightened moments: “All this time, he had been waiting for his real life to begin, “ Daniel observes. “But his life had been happening all along.”
Still, Polly and Daniel remain complex and engaging. As Daniel grows from early adolescence to adulthood, music is his solace, his passion, and finally his saving grace, reconciling him first to his circumstances and ultimately to himself. After a harrowing detour, Polly, too, finds a professional and personal path of her own. In the end, Polly and Daniel are still leavers, but each of their own accord and both toward their own desires, an outcome to be wished for all immigrants.
By Lisa Ko
Algonquin, 338 pp., $25.95
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’