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Stretching the Boundaries of American Political Reality in “Our Missing Hearts”

Stretching the Boundaries of American Political Reality in “Our Missing Hearts”

Following her critically acclaimed novels “Everything I Never Told You” and “Little Fires Everywhere” author Celeste Ng explores new territory in her latest novel “Our Missing Hearts” by stretching the boundaries of American political reality. This book, centering twelve year old Bird Gardner and his complex relationship with his absent mother, is set in the aftermath of the “Crisis”: an economic collapse in the United States which leads to the demonization of Asian cultures and the onset of relentless nationalistic legislation. At the same time, Ng traverses familiar territory of fraught familial dynamics and the multifaceted nature of identity. While the characters’ interpersonal relationships have moments of brilliance, they ultimately feel smothered under Ng’s world-building and lead to lingering questions long after the book has ended.

Bird, our inquisitive preteen protagonist, is thoughtful and understated like many of Ng’s child characters. Early on we’re introduced to his struggles at school, his distaste for his propagandizing homework, and the sense of abandonment brought by his mother’s three year absence from the family home. However, these early chapters introduce much more, namely the crushing weight of PACT, the aforementioned nationalistic legislation. PACT is mentioned on nearly every page of the first few chapters, delivered literally as didactic schoolwork, and lays the foundation for what will come. Its inclusion makes sense, but doing so at this pace leaves little room for Bird to flourish as a character. While much of the book is narrated in his perspective through a limited third person, said style keeps the boy at arms length from the reader. Ultimately, the balance of world-building to characterization, especially in the first half of the novel, leads to little interest in Bird himself apart from his relation to his enigmatic mother.

Indeed, the book exudes a new energy as Margaret Miu, Bird’s mother and infamous poet, enters the narrative. The backstory lending context to the Crisis and several other supporting characters, such as her fellow messenger Domi—who warranted more time based on her sheer charisma—is beautifully rendered, although it slows the established pace of the novel. We are also introduced to a network of librarians and the limiting and liberating power of books, altogether prescient in the current era of book banning. The librarians too command greater attention, but we are drawn away from them almost as quickly as they arrive.

Ultimately the novel stands on Ng’s depiction of the world, which gathers its power from its close proximity to how we live today. With Asian-American violence on the rise since the onset of the pandemic, widespread book banning, and the restriction of numerous civil liberties, it stands to reason that this world is not as far away as it seems. However, Ng takes on the weight of these ideas with little room to flesh them out, resorting to “nods” in various directions. In an interaction between Chinese-American Margaret and a Black couple, we are meant to bear the weight of fraught race relations between Asian-Americans and Black Americans throughout history. In a single line, “do you think this is new,” we take on the forced displacement of thousands of Native Americans in the not so distant past. While these are important topics, their sudden appearance and disappearance feel stretched thin in the midst of the mother-son relationship and the other topics covered in “Our Missing Hearts.” The project proves ambitious, absorbing, and thought-provoking, but often imbalanced, and could have supported an even greater page length in the number of topics it attempts to cover. Still, it is a welcome addition to Ng’s catalog and represents an intriguing step in a new direction. 

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Our Missing Hearts
By Celeste Ng
Penguin Press

Published October 4, 2022

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