A Hopeful Piece of Dystopia
Celeste Ng’s ‘Our Missing Hearts,’ a pandemic novel that’s not a pandemic novel
Book bans, discrimination against Asians, a national Crisis that nearly broke the country — the dystopian America in Our Missing Hearts, the latest novel from Little Fires Everywhere author Celeste Ng, is all too similar to the America we’re living in now.
In Our Missing Hearts’ dystopian version of America, the country is still reeling from a recent, unspecified economic catastrophe known as The Crisis. There was no one specific cause, but once people noticed that countries like China, Korea and Japan saw a rise in GDP while America’s economy continued to decline, this kicked off a new wave of anti-Asian hatred and a rise in patriotism from “true Americans.” The Crisis finally ended when the president signed the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act (PACT), which focused on finding seditious Persons of Asian Origin (PAOs). Eventually, if people weren’t considered patriotic enough or anti-Asian enough, they were investigated. Any Asian authors deemed unpatriotic were canceled, their works banned. Soon, in an echo of generations past, the government started forcibly removing the children of people it deemed traitorous.
And that is where Ng begins her story—not with the blueprint for an alternate reality for America, but with a child trying to make sense of why his mother left. 12-year-old Bird, half Asian, half white, lives with his librarian father in a Harvard dorm tucked away from the world. They moved there shortly after Bird’s mother, Margaret, up and left without saying why. Margaret was a poet whose words became a rallying cry after a woman died at an anti-PACT protest holding a copy of her book. Bird has heard she was a traitor and a PAO sympathizer. But when he receives a coded letter in the mail one day, he knows it’s from his mom. He sets out to find her, and then he learns his mother’s side of the events that led to her leaving the family.
To say anymore would spoil the emotional and physical journey Bird takes throughout Ng’s poetic and brutal novel, which evokes Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The Leftovers, Station Eleven and folk tales in equal measure. The words “coronavirus,” “COVID-19,” or “pandemic” never appear in Our Missing Hearts. But the reader can feel them lurking in the background of every page of this examination of the ways we use words to hurt and heal each other. And by not directly invoking the pandemic, Ng has created one of the best works of art about this time period.
“Bird and Margaret’s world isn’t exactly our world, but it isnt’ not ours, either,” Ng writes in the author’s note at the end of the book.
Just as she used the genre trappings of her previous works to tap into keen insights about race and class and family dynamics, Ng takes the dystopian alternate-history setting and makes it into a personal story about a family torn apart and how books and words unite them. Our Missing Hearts is a love letter to words, to poets and librarians, to fairy tales and folk stories.
Those worried about too much genre fare need not worry. Ng keeps the focus on her characters, and she weaves details about PACT and The Crisis so seamlessly into the plot that it doesn’t seme intrusive. For the first couple dozen pages, I thought I was reading real history about something I had missed in high school when we covered HUAC. That’s both a testament to Ng’s writing and America’s fraught relationship with race.
There’s no mythical Big Brother figure in Our Missing Hearts, although the propaganda of a fascist government remain. Neighborhood watch signs implore people to “watch out for each other.” Bird’s homework features math problems about the fuel efficiency of American cars instead of Korean ones. The brutal horror here is in the way people deliberately look the other way when Asians are attacked; they don’t want to be labeled as Asian smpathizers. One scene of terror that Bird witnesses made me put the book down and take a break. The world Ng imagines here is all too real for a country that saw new waves of anti-Asian hatred following the onset of the coronavirus.
And yet for all the brutality on display, Our Missing Hearts is hopeful at its core, for a world where words are still revolutionary, where we continue to pass on stories to each other, for a world where people will continue to band together in times of crisis.
It’s true, COVID culture is trash, but Our Missing Hearts is the first thing I’ve read so far to examine this time in our history and also give a hopeful solution through fiction. Ng deserves the same esteem as George Orwell, Ray Bradbury or Margaret Atwood.
(Penguin Press, Oct. 4, 2022)