Our Missing Hearts – Celeste Ng’s vision of a dystopian America


Dystopias are all the rage. With the possible exception of Korean dramas, they’re the go-to fallback option for Netflix producers, while young adult fiction editors love a teenager in a post-apocalyptic stalemate.

Into this golden age of dark thought comes Our missing heartsthe third novel by best-selling Chinese-American author Celeste Ng, a tale of authoritarian oppression on America’s East Coast that’s sure to appeal to pessimists.

The author’s previous novels have caused a sensation. She sold around 6.5 million books, with her second, Small fires everywhere (2017), made into a miniseries starring Reese Witherspoon. Her fiction often deals with how Asian Americans fit into tight-knit white American communities, but in her new novel she plunges that experience into the storm of a nationwide moral panic.

Ng’s unlikely hero is Bird Gardner, the troubled 12-year-old son of Ethan Gardner, a white Harvard linguist, and Margaret Miu, a Chinese-American poet. At the start of the novel, the family is in disarray: Margaret has abandoned the family; Ethan was demoted from Harvard faculty to the university library; and father and son now live in a depressing dorm on campus.

Behind this personal disaster lies a national disaster. A decade earlier, an economic collapse known simply as the “Crisis” fractured American society. “Many were going back to old lists of rivalries, looking for someone to blame,” Margaret recalls. “They would settle, in a few years, on China, this perilous and perpetual yellow menace.” Doubling down on that idea, the government passes PACT — the American Culture and Traditions Preservation Act — essentially banning “un-American ideas” and pro-China rhetoric. Chinese Americans soon become the enemy within.

Bird feels his family issues are somehow tied to PACT and the growing opposition to its draconian measures. Ng’s titular hearts allude to a line in one of Margaret’s poems, but they also refer to PACT “removals” – the children of dissidents taken away and placed in foster homes both as punishment and as a warning to potential protesters.

One of those lost children is Bird’s school friend Sadie, a black girl seized from her Baltimore home and forcibly transferred to Massachusetts. Ng underlines the flaws of a kind of patriotism “mixed with threat”.

Two events spur Bird into action. First, Sadie disappears from her new foster home. And then he receives a drawing of cats from his mother. “A code?” Wonders of birds. “Letters in their stripes, perhaps, at the tips of their ears or in the crease of their tails.” It’s the first of a series of clues – a trail of breadcrumbs, Bird thinks – that propels him to New York aided by a network of dissident librarians, shadow figures circulating information about abducted children.

His search eventually leads him to a barricaded Brooklyn brownstone where Margaret lives in savage conditions while planning an act of resistance.

The novel feels algorithmically configured to appeal to a paradox particularly prevalent among Millennials and Gen Z: a ​​fixation on individual experience matched by an appetite for tribal inclusion. And the dystopian narrative is the perfect vehicle for this contradiction, combining as it often does the struggle of the underdog with a search for relatives.

But the book is timely not only because of the current fervor for quirky dystopias, but also for the details of the collapse. “Bird and Margaret’s world isn’t exactly our world, but it isn’t ours either,” Ng writes in his author’s note. The increasingly fractured relationship between America and China plays out here in a twisted storyline in which Americans turn around. The Covid pandemic has sparked an increase in attacks on Asian Americans linked to rhetoric that they are spreading the virus. The impact of these events is felt in Ng’s writing.

Ng crafted a carefully structured story — divided into three parts, giving Bird and his mother’s viewpoints, followed by the aftermath of their reunion — and conjured up an achievable vision of an America of the near future. The novel, however, is let down by a syrupy treatment of romantic and parental relationships. The mother-son equation is touching but hyperbolic, and Bird and Sadie too often sound and think like adults, their reasoning often structured like an identity politics seminar.

More impressive is Ng’s treatment of the gradual disintegration of objective legislation, the gradual rise of racism, and the tendency of people to turn away in the face of injustice. His account of individuals worn down by the “Crisis” recalls the boredom of fight clubChuck Palahniuk’s 1996 satire on cutthroat consumerism.

Perhaps the smartest twist, though, is Ng’s description of librarians as honorable knights and libraries as silos of dissent (the US Library Service is currently battling a surge in book bans). Ultimately, Ng’s skill at plotting cuts through the occasional slip in schmaltz to produce an engaging cautionary tale. No doubt it will soon be on a streaming service.

Our missing hearts by Celeste Ng, Small, brown £20 / Penguin $29, 352 pages

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