Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in Harvard’s library. He knows not to ask too many questions, stand out too much, 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 drawn into a quest to find her. His journey will take him through 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, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.
Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts is a powerful dystopian tale set in the near future where Asian Americans are scorned and feared, with ensuing and continued dire consequences.
Our protagonist is the twelve-year-old Bird, whose mother fled years earlier for seemingly no reason and Bird’s father offers little insight into the true reasons behind such a painful abandonment. When Bird receives a letter from his mother he begins to question the reasons behind her disappearance and as the story unfolds, we, the reader, learn more about the country’s vilification of Asian Americans. More specifically, a law implemented to try and preserve American culture.
“He has never heard these words before, has never even heard this language before, but it is clear from the look on his father’s face that his father has, that he not only recognises the language but understands it, understands what this man has said.”
Celeste’s latest novel explores family and responsibility, but it also delves into power, injustice and racism. An authoritative government has taken over the US and it has harsh ramifications for anyone in the country of Asian descent.
When we meet Bird, he’s living with his father – a man rather oppressed and reluctant to challenge the oppressive government. And when Bird suspects that he may be able to reconnect with his mother, a woman who may just be the complete opposite, he sees an opportunity too enticing to refuse.
Throughout the novel we come to witness an unbreakable bond between mother and child, and how much they’re both willing to sacrifice to be with each other. Amidst a society consumed by fear, we have two characters willing to risk it all.
“They could have fired me, he says. The library isn’t open to just anyone, you know. You have to be a researcher. They have to watch who they let in. The university gets a lot of leeway because of its reputation, but they’re not immune. If someone caused trouble and they traced it back to a book they got here…”
Celeste is known for her powerful novels that challenge treatment of others, and Our Missing Hearts is no different. She has captured such a large-scale dystopian setting through the lens of a very small cast of characters. The ending, in particular, will sit with you for some time.
The novel does take a little bit of time to gain momentum, and it really isn’t until Bird goes in search of his mother that the novel starts to increase in traction. Up until that moment, Bird doesn’t seem to possess much agency or drive – he is merely a player, reactive to what is happening around him.
“A game they played, he and his mother, when he was very small. Before school, before he had any other world but her. His favourite game, one he’d begged her to play. Their special game, played only when his father was at work, kept as a secret between just them. You be the monster, mama. I’ll hide, and you be the monster.”
Recommended for readers of literary fiction, and dystopian tales. Readership skews female, 30+
Thank you to the publishing company for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Our Missing Hearts
Hachette Book Publishers