Do you ever go through reading slumps? You know, when you can’t find anything that really grabs you, and the books you’ve got are less than inspiring, some perhaps even downright boring? Occasionally this happens to me.
So, when the latest Celeste Ng novel came my way, I was hopeful, but prepared for disappointment (to be honest, this is actually my life’s MO).
Our Missing Hearts was so much more than I had hoped for. Heartbreaking, chilling, filled with love and loss, Ng’s novel is not the world we currently live in, but we can certainly see its edges. If Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is prescient about women’s rights, Ng’s razor-sharp focus plants itself firmly on racism. It is an indictment of what’s happening with the leap toward right-wing Christian fundamentalists taking over the socio-political landscape. Reader beware.
And yet, there is so much love and hope and some of the most beautiful prose you’re likely to encounter.
Twelve-year-old Bird and his father Ethan live a quiet life, sandwiched between school and Ethan’s job shelving books at a university library. They are fortunate to live in one of the dorms and take their meals in the cafeteria. Bird has been trained to keep his head down, not make trouble, and above all, never stand out. This has been drilled into him ever since his mother, a Chinese poet, left them.
Confused and lonely, Bird doesn’t know what life was like before PACT, laws enshrined a decade earlier to preserve American culture. These laws mandate that people report activity deemed un-American, or considered subversive, especially if they come from anyone of Asian origin. Everyone is more than aware of the tenants of the laws.
What’s lesser known is that children are sometimes taken from their homes and relocated if their parents hold un-American viewpoints, question anything about PACT, or anyone deems them suspicious. But just how prevalent is this? How many children have been taken? No one knows, no one asks questions, and certainly no one talks about it. To do so, invites a similar fate knocking at your door.
When Bird receives an anonymous letter containing nothing more than a cryptic drawing, it begins a search for his mother that takes him into the heart of a revolutionary act of defiance.
Our Missing Hearts is a fictional story about a world uncomfortably close to reality. It is about small acts of rebellion, the power of art to create change, the courage of those who dare to help others, and the legacies we pass on to our children. It welds together adventure, suspense, and heroism. But don’t let Ng’s crafting of a gripping tale fool you - this world is already with us and Ng’s tale is scaldingly relevant.
Often, for me, what sets a book apart from others is the language. Ng’s writing is poetic and lyrical with an uncanny ability to unearth the raw truth behind life’s facades. For example, when young Bird begins, for the first time, to see the small acts of rebellion in the form of hearts painted at the university campus, “His skin feels too small for his thoughts”. Another memorable phrase was Bird’s mother persevering in the face of her hardships. “To be alone with her grief, or whatever heavier thing she’d put on top to hold it down.”
Exquisite in its simplicity, searingly beautiful in its power. This is why I love this book.
If you’re a fan of Ng’s previous work (Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You), you’ll find Our Missing Hearts more than equal. It’s hard to put down. It’s a remarkable book from one of our finest contemporary writers.
If you’ve already read this, would love to hear your take on it. If you haven’t you should.
In the meantime, happy reading!