Thanks to Little Brown UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book and for inviting me to participate in the blog tour on the occasion of the UK book’s launch.
The Leavers comes highly recommended (winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction) and it feels particularly relevant to the historical times we live in. The plight of emigrants, issues of ethnic and national identity, transnational adoptions, alternative family structures and mother and son relationships. There is plenty of talk and official discourses about laws, building walls, and placing the blame on Others for the problems of a country these days, but this is nothing new. As I read the book, I could not help but think that the situation is a cyclical one, and perhaps the countries the immigrants come from, go to, or their circumstances change over time, but people keep moving. Sometimes they are met with open arms and others, not so much.
This novel is divided into four parts, and it is narrated by two characters. Peilan (Polly) is a young Chinese woman who initially leaves her fishing village for the city (to have access to better opportunities) and eventually takes on huge debt to move to America, already pregnant. She narrates her story in different time-frames (she recalls past events back in China, the difficult time when she had the baby and could not work in New York, her hard decision to send her child to live with her father in China, and the boy’s return after her father’s death), in the first person, first in America, and later, in present-day China. Deming (Daniel), her son, is born in America, shipped back to China, then back to America, and eventually ends up being adopted by a white American family. His story is told in the third person, and we follow him from age 11 (and some earlier memories) all the way to his early twenties. This is the story of two character’s growth, their struggle to discover (or rediscover) who they are and to make sense of their complex history.
The book is beautifully written, with enthralling descriptions of places, sounds, and emotions. If water and nature are particularly significant for Peilan, music makes life meaningful for Daniel and gives him an identity beyond nation and ethnic origin. Like our memories, the book is contemplative and meandering, and the thoughts of both characters reflect well how our minds work, as a smell, a sound, or a glimpsed figure can conjure up an image or a flood of emotions linked to a particular moment in time.
There is a mystery at the centre of the story. Polly leaves her son and nobody knows why. The alternating points of view put the readers in both roles and make us feel lost and abandoned on the one side, and on the other feel puzzled, as we clearly see that Polly loves her son, although she might have felt desperate and done extreme things at times. The explanation, when it eventually comes, is heart-wrenching and particularly poignant in view of some of the policies being enforced and implemented by some countries. Although it is not a traditional mystery novel, and it does not lose its power even if the readers get a clear idea of what had happened, I will try and avoid spoilers.
Both characters feel real, understandable and easy to empathise with, although not necessarily always likeable or immediately sympathetic. Deming is no star pupil, studious and well-behaved, and he makes many mistakes and has a talent for doing the wrong thing and upsetting almost everybody around him. Polly keeps her emotions under wraps; she works hard and puts up with incredibly hard situations until she suddenly does something that comes as a big surprise to everyone who knows her. They are not the perfect Norman Rockwell family by any stretch of the imagination, but that is what makes them more poignant and gives the novels its strength. It is easy to accept and sympathise with those we like and we feel are exceptional cases, but every case is unique and exceptional. The secondary characters are well-drawn and not simple fillers for the main story, their circumstances and personalities are interesting and believable, and the subject of the Deming’s adoption is afforded the nuance and complexity it deserves. The book deals with those issues from a personal perspective, but it is impossible to read it and not think about the effect that policies and politics have on the lives of so many people.
I highlighted many fragments of the book and it is difficult to select some that don’t reveal much of the plot, but I will try.
Instead of friends, Kay and Peter had books they read in bed at night. (Kay and Peter are Daniel’s adoptive parents).
He counted the heartbeats during that little catch between songs, savoring the delicious itch as the needle dropped and the melody snuck its toe out from behind a curtain.
A record was to be treasured, its circle scratches a mysterious language, a furtive tattoo.
“And that is it?” you said. “You forgot me?” “I didn’t forget. I just survived.”
Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days.
This novel reminded me of two of the books nominated for the Booker Prize I read last year, one of the finalists, Exist West by Mohsin Hamid (which explores emigration in a very novel way), and the other one Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (which also deals with identity and displacement, but it was the character of the brother and his descriptions of music that brought the book to my mind). I recommend it to readers who enjoyed those two books, and also readers interested in memory, identity, emigration, adoption (especially across ethnic and national boundaries) or anybody keen to discover a new writer who can paint images, emotions, and sounds with her words.