Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, is a gentle dystopian tale that brings together a number of themes to create a ‘what if’ scenario in the very near future. Dystopia is not that painful. A crisis –“The Crisis” – and how that crisis is then managed – is one that could happen any time. Apart from a key chapter in the novel this is a personal story with a huge impact on the city of New York.
The first theme is very American – the blame placed on Asians and Asian-Americans – PAO, or “people of Asian origin” for the crisis. The crisis is deliberately not fully explained – the point here is that this paranoia and discrimination against Asians has history in the USA. Needless to say that the Western and Chinese current cooling of relations makes this theme relevant
The second theme is the sense that one person can magically change the world. This has a little of the Greta Thunberg about it. In the novel the mother – Margaret – publishes a book of poems and finds herself at the centre of the rebellion and eventually takes part herself.
The third theme is that of children taken away from their parents deemed “Un-American.” Whilst there are good reasons this happens there are also historic malpractices with indigenous populations in USA and Canada. The latter – done for political reasons – only becomes plausible in this story with the back drop of the repressive laws and minority discrimination.
Linked to the first theme is a post crisis roll back of civil liberties. Some books are banned and pulped. School children are taught to believe in the jingoism of PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act) and minority groups such as Asians feel the weight of society’s institutions bend against them. The ease by which governments locked down their citizens during the COVID pandemic cannot be ignored in this respect. Linked to this is an underground culture of rebellion against the forced removal of children from their parents.
Much is made of Asian Margaret’s attempt to integrate, even to the detriment of her own culture, and then to become invisible in the post crisis backlash. Apart from rare violent acts in the street the fear is largely contained. We are also introduced to his friend Sadie although she actually has little to offer the story.
Celeste Ng begins with a story of a twelve year old son controlled by his White father in spartan circumstances to protect him. The son’s curiosity eventually takes hold and he leaves his life for New York following up a clue. Considering how repressive the society is, it takes some suspension of disbelief that a 12 year old Asian boy can make it all the way on his own into a big city to look for one house.
Half way through the novel – when Bird finds his mother – the novel pauses to use the mother to tell the story of how society collapsed and was then reformed. But even then it does not bring the fullness of the repression to the main story – this is not quite on the scale of China or North Korea. Whilst plausible in itself the reader is temporarily taken away from the main story – the son’s journey.
Poet Margaret Miu, Bird’s mother, is forced to disappear after a phrase from one of her poems — “our missing hearts” — went viral during protests against PACT. Much is then made of story making and motherhood – lyrical but felt dispensable.
All the themes come together into a delicate woven story about a child’s (Bird) journey to New York to find his mother (Margaret). After Bird’s success in finding his mother the story takes off in the third act – when his mother becomes the main focus with her set piece civil disobedience act. Unfortunately it felt more like the stuff we see today with Extinction Rebellion – a statement rather than actually making a difference.
Celeste Ng tells a gentle tale and at no point did I feel the son was in any real sense of danger. The horrifying circumstances – the themes – do not become tortuous for the reader. Whilst I was gripped towards the end I was left wanting more drama.