In her third novel, Our Missing Hearts, the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere delivers a timely dystopian tale about Bird Gardner, a 12-year-old boy who is desperately trying to hold on to memories of his mother from before she left their family.
Bird, who is called Noah by everyone except his mom, lives alone with his father in a small dormitory. Their world is a pristine society, having recovered from a period of time known as “the Crisis.” But an uneasy, gnawing feeling grows within the boy, especially regarding the lessons he’s taught in school. As Bird begins to awaken to reality, he also becomes aware of the ties between his mother’s poetry and the increasingly absurd protests that are happening around the country (thousands of pingpong balls released in the Mississippi River, graffitied red hearts appearing everywhere). When a mysterious package arrives for Bird, a poignant adventure follows, in which he searches for both his mother and the answers to the suppressed questions surrounding her disappearance.
Celeste Ng is undoubtedly at the top of her game. The American society she depicts in Our Missing Hearts is overcome by fear, serving as a poignant critique of our own increasingly fraught and oppressive political landscape. In the novel, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act (PACT) is the overwhelming governing force, a Big Brother-esque law that “outlaws promotion of un-American values and behavior. Encourages all citizens to report potential threats to our society. And . . . protects children from environments espousing harmful views.” Bird’s mother is labeled a “Person of Asian Origin,” even though the president insists that “PACT is not about race.” And in a guidebook for “Young Patriots,” readers learn that “for people who weaken our country with un-American ideas, there will be consequences.”
However, Ng’s focus on the unbreakable bond between mother and son elevates the story to more than a cautionary dystopian tale. As Bird searches for his mother, he racks his memories for pieces of her—such as the folktales she told him growing up—and from these fragments, he begins to create a new path for himself. His journey is through both history and language, and as he travels across the country, he finds help from an underground network of librarians and learns to root out the ideas that have infected his mind and the nation as a whole.
Ng’s prose highlights the fateful and sometimes absurd connections between our world and the realm of ideas, reminding readers that what is in our heads will always reveal itself in our bodies. The result is a novel that will undoubtedly impact how we connect and live in this terrifying, beautiful world.