'The Leavers' Is 2017's Must-Read Debut

This year may have gotten off to a rocky start, but we're not even at halfway point, and already 2017 has been a kickass time for book-lovers. There have been outstanding additions to the feminist library, titillating book-to-TV adaptations, highly anticipated releases from old favorites and new authors, but Lisa Ko's The Leavers is the year's powerful debut you won't want to miss.

Selected by Barbara Kingsolver as winner of the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, The Leavers is a riveting story about a Chinese mother living in New York with her young son who goes to work one day and never comes home. Deming, who is 11 when his mother Peilan, or Polly, disappears and leaves him with her boyfriend, Leon, Leon's sister, and her 10-year-old son, is used to being left behind by his mother. Raised by his maternal grandfather in a rural village in China until he was 6, Deming didn't get to know his mother until he was forced back into her life following his grandfather's death. Just five years later, and Deming is just starting to get used to life with his mom, starting to love her laugh and her humor, when she leaves for her shift at the nail salon and is never seen again.

Abandoned by Leon, the man he once considered his father, and unable to be cared for by his pseudo-aunt, Deming is adopted by well-meaning, white suburban couple Kay and Peter, and quickly goes from slumming it on the couch with his makeshift family in the Bronx to wearing cargo shorts, playing video games with friends, and owning his own laptop in a small town in upstate New York. Disconnected from his family, from his past, and from his roots, Deming becomes Daniel in his new life, but he never stops trying to solve the mystery of his missing mother. When he finds out she is alive and living in China, he has another mystery to solve: why she left him, and why she never tried to get him back.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko, $17, Amazon

Shifting perspectives between Deming/Daniel and his mother, Polly, The Leavers expertly weaves a tale of the conflicts between love and loyalty, personal identity and familial obligation, and the growing divide between freedom and social justice. An affecting novel that details the the gut-wrenching realities facing illegal immigrants and their families in modern America, Lisa Ko's debut is the 2017 fiction release you can't afford to miss.

These quotes will prove why.

"A person could carry this alien being and never know. A monster twin. A hairball double. So many things could be growing inside him, inside every person. He carried Mama and Leon, Michael and vivian, the city. Reduced to a series of hairs, a ball of fingernail clippings and one stray tooth. A collection of secret tumors."
"Like a detective inspecting the same five seconds of surveillance video, he replayed last Wednesday afternoon [...] He picked apart the words she said, hunting for clues, the way his English teachers made them read poems and spend twenty minutes talking about a sentence, the meaning behind the meaning. The meaning behind her telling him about her life. The meaning of Florida. The meaning of her not coming home."
"If only he had the right clothes, knew the right references, he would finally become the person he was meant to be. Like Roland — self-assured, with impeccable taste — but less vain. Deserving of love, blameless. But no matter how many albums he acquired or playlists he artfully compiled, the real him remained stubbornly out there like a fat cruise ship on the horizon, visible but out of reach, and whenever he got closer it drifted farther away."
"One week later, tucked into a double bed sheathed with red flannel, Deming Guo awoke with the crumbs of dialect on his tongue, smudges and smears dissolving syllables, nouns and verbs washed out to sea. One language had out seeped another; New York had provided him with an arsenal of new words. He'd bled English vowels and watched his mother's face fall."
"Over five years in New York and this was the first time I hadn't been surrounded by people, just me and one other person in an apartment by ourselves, and afterwards I leaned against the sink in Leon's bathroom and cried, not only because of the sex and the beautiful man, but because of how good it felt to not hear sewing machines or honking cars or my roommates sniping at one another. Savor this moment, I told myself, you may never get it again."
"Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn't been intertwined, when dirty, rolling bass line hadn't induced violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn't produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird."
"For so long, he had thought that music was the one thing he could believe in: harmony and angular submelody and rolling drums, a world neither present nor past, a space inhabited by the length of a song. For a song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol."
"You being gone like that, given over to another family like a stray dog, was too much to comprehend, and it hovered, like the rest of the world, just out of reach."
"I knew how it must sound to you: I hadn't tried hard enough, I didn't love you enough. But I could have kept looking forever. I needed you to understand."