Title: Our Missing Hearts
Author: Celeste Ng
Publication Date: October 4, 2022
Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, their lives have been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic—including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet who left the family when he was nine years old.
Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.
Wow, wow, wow. For those of you readers out there who haven’t had the privilege of reading a Celeste Ng novel, I’d definitely recommend you correct this. Ng’s writing prowess is something to behold, growing with each novel she puts out. She is truly a writing queen. Her latest, Our Missing Hearts, is a poignant exploration of common themes we’ve seen on the rise in America in the past few years: racism, discrimination, anti-Asian sentiment, protests violent and not, separation of migrant families, post-guerrilla art as a means of speaking out. There is SO much to unpack here, but Ng has built a world that brings these themes and more together to highlight a dystopian America that is not so far removed from the world we know. Reading this book, you’ll find yourself wondering if this is fact or fiction as it runs parallel to the day-to-day terrors and societal battles we see in our own lives.
The story is primarily told through the eyes of Bird, the twelve year old son of mother-turned-accidental-activist, Margaret Miu. The author of an obscure book of poems that sparked a nation-wide movement against government control, Miu is public enemy number one, leaving Bird alone and outcast from his peers. He is to live life calling as little attention to himself as possible. His mixed heritage leaves him vulnerable to society, particularly to those who know his mother and her role in the rebellion. He’s the perfect narrator: a child on the cusp of young adulthood, a tabula rasa, pliable and capable of building a fresh and new opinion as he begins to tear down the construct that is built around him and meant to keep him safe. Reaching that perfect point of curiosity and independence, his desire to seek out the truth, to know his history, and to dig for answers, makes him the ideal storyteller as he embarks on a life-changing journey.
I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoyed this book. It’s a critical read for everyone and should go down as one of the new classics of contemporary American literature. If ever there was a book to capture the state of American life in today’s world, this is the one. Serving as both an observation as well as a profound warning, Ng digs deep into the cracks in the foundation of society to bring forth what is, in my opinion, one of the best books to come out in recent years. I hope you’ll find it as intensely moving and gripping as I did.