Celeste Ng’s latest novel, Our Missing Hearts, is a profoundly moving story of a young boy and his mother. It’s also a frightening look at racial injustice, the impact of nationalist thinking, and the risks of complacency. Like her previous work, Ng’s writing is visceral, but in Our Missing Hearts her evocative storytelling truly shines. This cerebral read is likely not for everyone, but Our Missing Hearts is a must read for anyone interested in exploring the impact of racism and social injustice through a fictional work.
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Our Missing Hearts: Synopsis
It’s been more than a decade since the end of the economic crisis that threw America into a tailspin. Though the economy has recovered, the lasting impact of the crisis is evident throughout the nation. The passing of PACT, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, has emboldened the government to persecute anyone believed to be anti-American or who shows interest in Asian culture. Many believe China was behind the events leading to the crisis, leaving Asian Americans particularly vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination.
Growing up in a post-crisis world, twelve-year-old Bird has learned to keep his head down and follow the rules. His father has taught him that being half-Asian American means he must be vigilant at all times. Any misstep could put him and his father under the PACT microscope again. His father may be white, but Bird’s mother, Margaret Miu, is a controversial Chinese American poet whose work has been associated with PACT protests.
It’s been three years since his mother disappeared for reasons Bird still doesn’t understand. He’s been taught to say that he no longer associates with her or her beliefs, which came under intense scrutiny just before her disappearance. He struggles to remember what it was like to have her around, but all those feelings and questions about her disappearance come rushing back when she sends him a cryptic message in the mail.
Desperate to understand her message, Bird sets out to discover the origins of a folktale his mother depicts in her letter. In the process he breaks the rules, leaving him vulnerable to PACT interference. Children everywhere have been removed from homes believed to be anti-American, and his actions could easily be misconstrued as just that. But Bird doesn’t care. He knows where his mother is, and he’s determined to find her and to find out why she left him all those years ago.
Our Missing Hearts: Musings
To be fair, Our Missing Hearts was an instant add to my reading list long before publication date. I loved Little Fires Everywhere so much that I knew this would be a must-read. But I wasn’t expecting the book to move me the way it has. I was gifted an advanced listener copy from Libro.FM that sat in my library a few weeks before pressing play. As soon as I finished the audiobook I knew I had to have a physical copy, as well. In the end, Our Missing Hearts has secured a spot on my top 12 books of 2022, and here’s why.
This powerful new novel is a heart wrenching tale of love set in a dystopian future that looks alarmingly like our current reality. Profound, unsettling, and deeply moving are just a few of the words that come to mind as I reflect on Our Missing Hearts. The world that Ng creates seems, at first, distantly recognizable. But as the story unfolds alarm bells ring, and things that once seemed foreign feel more familiar than not.
Hate crimes are normal occurrences in Ng’s world. People stand aside while others are physically assaulted, persecuted, isolated, and unjustly judged. The parallels between Ng’s America of the future and our current reality is unmistakable. Normal people are driven to the edge and back, forced to live within social constructs created by a government rather than of their own making. Ethnicity and race determine who is safe and who is at risk of losing everything by simply saying the wrong thing, speaking the wrong language, or even just existing. Children are ripped from the arms of their parents for seemingly small infractions by authorities citing greater good and preservation of “the American way.”
None of this sounds particularly American, yet it all seems to play out in our current society. Sadly, hate crimes, social injustices, and race wars aren’t just fiction in the pages of Ng’s book. They are our reality, a reality we have learned to accept. Like the people in Our Missing Hearts, we’ve turned a blind eye to the danger of silence only to realize, hopefully not too late, that our voices and stories are our greatest weapon.
trauma and grief
I can’t review this book without talking about the character of Bird. What appears on the surface to be maturity is anxiety and fear born out of trauma. Raised primarily in a post-crisis world, Bird’s been taught to mistrust others, to censor himself in all things, and to numb his feeling heart. The loss of his mother and the stories he’s told about her after her departure wound him deeply. And it’s not until they are reunited does he understand how profoundly her persecution impacted his family. The future he was promised when he was first born will never be his reality, and the grief associated with that loss is immense.
Having recently lost my mother, I can’t ignore the primary reason I found this story so heartbreaking. The relationship between a mother and her child is supposed to be cellular, reaching far into the psyche of both to form a bridge that cannot be broken, even in separation. The bond between Bird and Margaret is not without imperfections, but in each other they see their own truths. Bird sees a way to be free of the fear he’s lived with for so long. Margaret sees a way forward and finds the strength to stand up for what she knows is right, even if it costs her everything. Ng has written an homage to the relationship between a mother and child and captured with perfection the pain and desperation that accompanies the loss of that relationship.
“Once upon a time, there was a boy. Once upon a time there was a mother. Once upon a time, there was a boy, and his mother loved him very much.”Celeste Ng-Our Missing Hearts
Despite the love they feel for each other, Bird’s relationship with his parents is not without issues. Bird’s complicated feelings for his mother mirror her own complicated feelings about herself and her role as mother, advocate, artist, daughter, and wife. To be one does not preclude the other, yet it’s sometimes extremely difficult to be both. And although his father, Ethan, did what he thought was right for Bird at the time, his actions created a rift between the two that ultimately contributes to Bird’s choice to leave home. Relationships are hard, and at the heart of Ng’s novel we are reminded of the complexity of the human experience. My choices impact not only myself but also those around me.
Our Missing Hearts: Rating
If you can’t tell already, I loved this book. It’s the first book in a while that left me with a book hangover, making it hard to move on and let go. I’m still finding it difficult to put into words all the feelings this book evoked for me, but it’s fair to say that Our Missing Hearts broke my heart (in a good way). If you enjoy books that challenge you to reflect on the world around us and your place in it, then read this book. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook, especially if you struggle with text with no quotation marks. Lucy Liu’s narration elevates the book to even greater heights. Thank you Libro.FM and PRH audio for the gifted copy of this amazing audiobook.
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