Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
Published by Penguin Press
Publication date: October 4, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Dystopian, Literary
What better time to review a novel set in an unspecified time in America’s not-too-distant future than the day before an election? Celeste Ng’s novel, Our Missing Hearts, could either be the way things should be or a dystopian hell, depending on your beliefs. I’ll leave it to you to suss out where I stand, but it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Bird is 12-years-old and lives with his father in an apartment above the dorms at Harvard. Once a professor of linguistics, his father now shelves books in the library. Bird’s mother, Margaret, left them three years ago. The decade before Bird was born was one of economic turmoil and social violence in America until the Preserving American Culture & Traditions act was signed into law. Things have settled, as PACT has clearly outlined what is patriotic behavior and what is not. Anything foreign, especially Chinese, is unpatriotic. This includes not just people and speech, but materials—books, newspapers, movies, and the internet. Censorship is the norm.
The fact that Bird’s mother is Chinese American is bad enough, but she’s also a poet and a student used a line from one of her poems as a rallying cry against PACT. Despite the poem having nothing to do with politics, eyes turned toward the family and Margaret disappeared, leaving her husband to disavow her and teach their son to keep his head down and avoid any attention. Especially as one of the key elements of PACT is the ability to arbitrarily remove children from any home deemed problematic and “re-place” them in a patriotic home.
The first part of Our Missing Hearts is Bird’s life in this dreary world. The loneliness of every trace of a mother erased and a father who’s turned inward. A boy judged solely by his looks. He can’t even go by Bird anymore, but must use his given name, Noah. It’s only when a page of drawings arrives in the mail for him, that he pushes back against his isolation by going on a search for answers. A search that takes him back to his family home and beyond.
Our Missing Hearts lives in the sweetest spot between storytelling and the kind of writing that makes me envious of its beauty. Set in a familiar country that’s become foreign in its xenophobia and fear, the story is disturbing as freedom is reduced to propaganda and hate. There is hope to be found in the tiny subversive acts of librarians, poets who won’t look the other way, and little boys who will ask questions, but Our Missing Hearts’ strength is as an act of literary defiance. Given the direction our country is pointing, I only hope it remains an exquisite piece of fiction rather than prescient fact.