The thing is, you never know your world is going to end until it happens — that disaster will strike or be inflicted; that the unimaginable will creep up so slowly it goes unnoticed; that dysfunction will blossom into deadliness; or that peace, quiet, and country club calmness will shatter into a million little pieces — as happened in Celeste Ng’s literary blockbuster Little Fires Everywhere.
In her new novel, Our Missing Hearts, it’s millions of lives progressively compromised, crushed, and stealthily snuffed out in a not-so-distant future as China perpetually hovers on the verge of a planet-annihilating war with the rest of the globe. In this dystopian narrative, that standoff has steered the United States into devoting much of its national and cultural defense mechanisms at home to anti-Asian propaganda. By sowing discrimination, public humiliation, and personal destruction, the government implicitly condones violence against anyone of Asian descent and embarks on an insidious program of separating the children of alleged dissidents from their “undesirable” families, who often proceed to disappear under enigmatic and frightening circumstances.
Just replay the January 6 hearings, and you’ll know what I mean, and what Ng meticulously, eloquently, and devastatingly gets at in Our Missing Hearts.
Take Ng’s 12-year-old, half Chinese-American Noah Gardner, nickname “Bird,” living under the omnipresent PACT, or Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, which insists that everything is hunky-dory, and the nationalistic fearmongering it spreads is just a sunny-side up way of keeping everyone happy and safe. Bird picked his nickname when he was younger, and his family was happy and intact. After his poet mother, Margaret Chu, abandons her husband, a brilliant former linguistics professor who now files books in a university library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his father refuses to call him that anymore. Missing his mother terribly, Noah revives his nickname, both out of defiance and out of a young boy’s propulsive sense of hurt.
Like others who seemingly go missing, Bird’s mother’s departure was more like a forced vanishing, since she was associated with a resistance that still simmers underground and whose members venerate her poetry, especially the powerful, stabbing clutch of words “our missing hearts.”
Growing signs of dissent have started to appear in the form of banners or writing in chalk, many containing those three potent words, which Noah takes as a sign that his missing mother is somehow trying to communicate with him. He also witnesses a strange set of coincidences at his father’s library, which most decidedly does not stock her books. There, Bird glimpses people leaving tiny bits of folded paper inside books within the stacks, while a young librarian helps him find a book of Japanese fairy tales with stories that his mother used to tell him. These events give Bird the courage to leave home for New York to track his mother down. Bird arrives in a New York you know and don’t know. Chinatown resembles an abandoned war zone, while the Upper East Side “looks like a fairyland,” with a beautiful Asian woman walking a small dog until “a tall white man” and his fist come “out of nowhere…The woman crumpling, turned to rubble.” He experiences a Park Avenue lined more with fortresses than the expensively impregnable apartment buildings they really are. But Bird has a slip of paper with the word “Duchess” written on it and an address, and he’s the kind of young man who won’t take no for an answer, not from a totalitarian regime’s powers that be who believe they know what they have in store for him, not from a doorman. The “Duchess” turns out to be Dodo, his mother’s friend and flatmate from when they were young and led an arduous but happy and creative downtown existence. Dodo and Bird’s mother are still close, so close that Dodo gets him to a mysterious hideaway where Margaret is engaged in activities that will sweep Bird into a mysterious world where nothing is what it seems — that is, until dark corridors and hidden liberation plots give up their ghosts and those seeking to avenge them. Bird sees and retrieves there what he needs in order to move forward, so that even when Margaret disappears once more, he knows what to do.
Celeste Ng has written another wonder of family lost and found, and about the force of words and art that connect and set free.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press) is available in stores and online October 4.