The two central characters in this novel are Deming Guo and his mother, Polly, who is a Chinese immigrant (undocumented) from the city of Fuzhou, now living in New York (I loved the specificity of Deming and Polly insisting they speak Fuzhounese, which is a dialect of Min Chinese; this book had great cultural and historical detail like this all throughout). The first third of the novel is told entirely from Deming’s perspective, as he lives in NYC with his mother, her boyfriend Leon, and her boyfriend’s sister Vivian, and Vivian’s son, Michael, who Deming thinks of as a brother. They don’t have a lot of money, his mom is always working, and he’s not great at school, but he likes his life. Then his mom disappears, just after they have a fight because Deming doesn’t want to leave NY and go live in Florida, where his mom has gotten a better job as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, a huge income jump from her nail salon job, not to mention the cost of living would be lower.
After months of not being able to find out where Polly has gone, Leon leaves to go back to Fuzhou, and Vivian surrenders Deming to the state, where he is quickly adopted by a white couple from upstate, a pair of college professors who rename him “Daniel Wilkinson” so he’ll fit in better.
I found Deming’s sections alternately boring/frustrating and fascinating. I felt for him when he was dealing with the difficulties of being thrust suddenly into another culture, and trying to come to terms with his mother’s (and Vivian and Leon’s) abandonment of him. But he is also just kind of a putz, especially as an adult. He’s a gambling addict, and he is directionless, succumbing to the pressures of his adopted parents’ wishes rather than finding his own way (they are well meaning but still clueless in a lot of ways). He makes some pretty bad choices.
And then a third of the way through, we start to get chapters from Polly’s perspective, and those were immediately engaging. I found myself upset when I had to leave her perspective and go back to Deming’s. Polly is an interesting character, restless, but loving and loyal in her own way, and when I found out what happened to her, it’s not quite what I was expecting. SPOILERS I found the scenes where she recounts her imprisonment in the ICE facility horrifying and deeply unsettling and it disgusts me that my country engages in these practices, and has been for a long time END SPOILERS.
I think what really works best about this book is that it’s so character focused. Ko is not telling a “message” story. The focus on the characters’ arcs, and their growth, and the things that happen to them are important, but the story is about them as individuals, and not some overarching plight. The point of the story is not THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT IMMIGRANTS LISTEN TO MY IMPORTANT STORY ABOUT IMMIGRANTS, it’s about Polly and Deming, and they happen to be immigrants.
I wish I had liked Deming’s POV sections more wholeheartedly, but I liked them enough (especially by the end when he has shit more together) that I’m glad I read this book, even though I had a hard time getting through it until we got to the Polly sections. I can imagine if you connect with Deming more than I did as a character, this book would be a really successful read for you.
Interesting to note, it’s never named but it’s obvious that Deming has synesthesia, and his particular version of it entails him seeing colors when he hears music, or things that are similar to music. As someone with synesthesia myself, I found this interesting, and in particular since it took a little for me to catch on that this is what was happening. Some of the descriptions could have just been written as poetic language, but then you realize Ko has Deming meaning them literally.
Read Harder Challenge 2020: Read a book by or about a refugee.