Review: Our Missing Hearts
Updated: Apr 18
Our Missing Hearts, by Celeste Ng (2022)
This book is set in a dystopian version of the US that pulls from many real-life sentiments and occurrences. It is a combination of government-sanctioned and managed McCarthyism, WWII Japanese internment camps, and present-day fear of China as a potential global superpower.
When the book begins, it's been over a decade since "The Crisis" - a worldwide economic collapse that is blamed on China (sounds familiar). Once over the economic hump of the collapse, the US government passes PACT - The Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act - which essentially encourages xenophobic anti-Asian-ism, a watchdog culture where people report others for the smallest of "infractions," and children are routinely taken away from their families in an effort to shield them from "subversives."
Bird Gardner is an Asian-American, 12-year old boy living with his white father. He remembers little of his Asian mother Margaret, who disappeared three years ago. But he knows she was a writer, and that her book of poetry has helped ignite a growing political resistance movement - albeit from hearsay only, since her book has been banned along with thousands of others, pulped and turned into toilet paper. Bird's father insists that they renounce Margaret entirely, as any connection to her (or any Asian/Asian-American, for that matter) could be extremely dangerous. But Bird's curiosity is piqued when he receives a cryptic piece of mail from her - a letter with drawings of cats, which reminds him of an old fairytale she used to tell him. Later he also finds a New York City address hidden away in their old home. He's certain these clues are meant for him, and now, Bird is determined to learn more - not just about his mother and where she's gone, but also about his best friend Sadie, who has also disappeared. She was taken away from her parents and passed from foster home to foster home, and now she's either been taken again, or she's run away to look for her family.
I think the story could have used a little more marinating before publishing. Ng's other novels, Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You, were both masterfully told by looking more microscopically, taking one family or one person and digging deep. Our Missing Hearts goes too macro in its attempts to tell the story of an economic crisis followed by extreme racism. When Ng focuses on the relationships between Bird and his father or Bird and Sadie, the story flows easily and the connections feel strong. As Bird begins to learn more about his mother, The Crisis, and what caused her disappearance Ng zooms out to the wider narrative, but never really explains how these things came to be. What caused The Crisis in the first place? What sequence of events led up to the passing of PACT? And how did the American people become so enamored of the control the government now has over their lives?
All in all, Our Missing Hearts is a dark but poignant story about censorship and discrimination in which Ng weaves together so many modern-day sentiments that it feels scarily relevant. I think the book had a few plot holes and could have been better laid out, but I really enjoyed reading it, and thinking about the extremes to which we, as humans, will go to feel safe - by "othering" a group we're afraid of, allowing violence and censorship to create that false sense of security.
UP NEXT: Kaikeyi, by Vaishnavi Patel