For a young Chinese American, our hearts are missing in action

Book Reviews
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

This was first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Oct. 2, 2022

Some books are great because there is a plot twist down the road and that road is a fun time.

Pittsburgh native Celeste Ng’s “Our Missing Hearts” is so compelling the reader will immediately want to know how it ends and that road – though every word is worthy – will seem like the enemy.

Ng, the bestselling author of “Everything I Never Told You” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” pushes the reader along into territory that is uncomfortable and necessary. “Our Missing Hearts” soaks up societal ills like a sponge and wrings humanity from each sentence, laying our collective monsters out on each page in blistering detail.

Although the book is classified as dystopian fiction, it is all too real in parts, taking a searing look at hypocrisy and social injustice in the land of the free, especially as it relates to the Asian-American community. The reader might struggle to decide if it’s truly set in the future or if that future is happening now.

In the early ’80s, author John Gardner’s most-often quoted writing advice to writers was to give the reader a “vivid and continuous dream” in their minds.

In 2022 another Gardner, 12-year-old Noah “Bird” Gardner, helps bring a vivid and continuous dream alive, as the protagonist of Ng’s novel. Writers often expose hidden real-life woes, even through fiction. Ng kicks the door open to those with heart-wrenching force in “Our Missing Hearts.”

Bird has learned to take up little space in the world and to not stand out in any way. From his view, 10 stories up in a cookie-cutter, nondescript apartment, he imagines he is safe. One day he watches the jagged ice where his father steps on his way to work. He marvels at how the snow covers his father’s path and thinks how sad it is that it’s as if his father had never been there, as if he went missing.

From the novel’s very first sentence, when a mysterious letter arrives for Bird, the reader will want to know how it ends. With every page, that puzzle gets closer to becoming a big picture, yet also seems impossible to solve.

We watch as Bird tries to unravel the mystery of why his mother left when he was 9, and where she went. Because he is 12 – old enough to absorb much of the world but young enough to maintain innocence – the reader eagerly accompanies him on a vivid and continuous journey that includes folk tales his mothers told him as a young boy. While Bird searches, his father loves to use his skills as a former linguist to shuttle Bird down rabbit holes about words. Words make up stories and Bird’s mother, Margaret, filled their home with them when she lived there.

In the book, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act is passed to ostensibly keep Americans safe after years of economic instability and violence. After the act’s passage, authorities are allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin. Libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic — including the work of Bird’s mother, a Chinese American poet.

Ng mentions St. Margaret, an early Christian who was swallowed by a dragon but escaped by making the sign of the cross. The reader will want to believe, as Bird does, that his mother will also be delivered safely from the belly of the dragon. It’s the dragon he has to figure out, even as it is all around him and consumes his day-to-day life. Helped by an underground network of librarians — leave it to Ng to write a book where librarians are the heroes — Bird perseveres.

While racing to the end of the novel, the reader discovers the long-lasting bond of family, the unyielding love between mother and child and a culture consumed by fear trying to find the pieces of its missing heart.

Meredith Cummings is a freelance journalist and teaching assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University.

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