The Leavers

I’ve been in a reading slump for awhile now, though it’s hard to say why it persisted for so long. Earlier in the summer I embarked on a necessary professional transition, which is to say I wasn’t happy in my position and I did the thing where you update your written list of credentials, send them off for consideration, and then hope you get to talk to someone else about something else. I did, they were, in fact, considered, and now I’m here, though in the excitement and newness I forgot how unsettling it all can be. It’s not so much the taking on of new responsibilities that’s most daunting, honestly. It’s getting comfortable in one space, good or bad, and then feeling uprooted and exposed in your dailiness. Walking into the office with wet hair after a morning run, learning the accepted etiquette of eating at your desk (or not). Feeling like you have to sit in your chair until 5 o’clock on the dot, whereas before 4:45 was an anomaly. Though, most of all, simply feeling unknown and waiting for those little crumbs of acknowledgement and acceptance.

In all of this unsettledness, I found it incredibly difficult to get lost in my bookish world, which seems kind of backwards. Escaping from these uncomfortable feelings probably would have done me good, but it felt like I could only shut off my brain with active hands. I spent some time attempting to learn calligraphy, I added a few rows to a scarf I’ve been working on for over a year. I baked bread, crackers, granola. I tried to pick up various books a few times, only to peter out a couple dozen pages in, some invisible wall crashing down and disrupting my feeble attempt at focus. I’ve been in this place before, and I’ve also gotten myself out of it before. I’m here to tell you that there is no magical fix. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, [reading] is the art of applying the ass to the seat.

Lisa Ko’s The Leavers has been sitting next to my bed for almost 5 months, and I had started, and liked, it when it first found its way onto my to-read pile, so when I caught wind of it on a book award list or two recently, I decided it was as good a place as any to start. This hunch turned out to be correct, and perhaps because the book’s loudest theme is displacement, I felt comfortable with Deming/Daniel, Polly, Peter and Kay. The story begins with present day Daniel who is spiraling out of control in a binge drinking stupor, though we quickly flash back to his past to start to put together the pieces of his life. Eventually we also get the story from his birth mother, Polly’s, point of view, and what unfolds feels all too relevant as a heartbreaking story of an immigration gone wrong in this current era of DACA dissolution.

Polly goes to work and never comes home, vanishing without a trace, and Daniel finds himself abandoned by not only her, but by the only other adults he’s known in his short life. He is immediately thrust into Child Protective Services, and while he lands with at least an open, caring couple, the expectation of a new, immediate family leaves him further isolated. Uprooted from New York City to a small, predominantly white, college town upstate, he struggles to grapple with his “otherness,” and to come to terms with the darkness resulting from having no insight into the events that left him orphaned.

This was a very personal book in the sense of getting to know each character intimately, and I felt real strength in Ko’s exploration of everyone at a very raw level. I found the passages between Kay and Daniel to be especially poignant. I could feel Kay’s desperation and reticence in wanting Daniel to accept she and Peter as a replacement family, his own alienation and confusion confounded by their insistence that he was instantly one of them at the not-so-pliable age of 11, especially after his own trauma and resulting hardness, combined with the imposition of an entirely new identity.

The Leavers doesn’t try too hard to wrap everything up in a nice, neat package, and even if it doesn’t leave everyone in a great place, it leaves them in an okay place that seems to reckon with all the story’s injustices without completely erasing them. Daniel is allowed to come full circle; he ends up where he began in many ways, but at least this time it’s of his own accord. He’s reconciled as much of his past as he can, and then he frees himself from it. If nothing else, Ko lets us believe that Daniel has saved himself.

*Photo credit: Jorg Schubert

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