Our Missing Heart, a potent new dystopian book by Celeste Ng, mirrors our headlines back to us.

In her most recent book, “Our Missing Hearts,” author Celeste Ng pushes the limits of American political reality in the wake of her highly praised books “Everything I Never Told You” and “Little Fires Everywhere.” This book is set in the aftermath of the “Crisis,” a financial crisis in the United States that causes Asian cultures to be demonised and the introduction of persistent nationalistic laws. It centres on twelve-year-old Bird Gardner and his complicated connection with his missing mother. Ng also explores well-known themes including complex familial interactions and the complexities of identity.
The interpersonal ties between the characters have their brilliant moments, but overall Ng’s world-building feels suffocating and leaves readers with unanswered issues long after the book has concluded.

Like many of Ng’s young characters, Bird, our curious preteen protagonist, is thoughtful and reserved. We learn about his academic difficulties right away, his dislike of his propagandising assignments, and the feeling of abandonment he had as a result of his mother’s three-year departure from the family home. But much more is introduced in these first chapters, including PACT’s crushing weight and the aforementioned nationalistic laws. PACT is actually presented as didactic schooling in the first few chapters, and it builds the groundwork for the rest of the book by being cited on almost every page. Its introduction makes logical, but doing so quickly prevents Bird from developing into a fully realised personality.

The youngster is kept at a distance from the reader despite the fact that a large portion of the novel is told from his point of view in a limited third person. Ultimately, aside from his relationship to his mysterious mother, Bird doesn’t hold much attention due to the novel’s world-building to characterisation ratio, particularly in the early half.

The addition of Margaret Miu, Bird’s mother and a famous poet, gives the tale a fresh vigour. Although it slows down the novel’s set pacing, the past provides context for the Crisis and a number of other supporting characters, including her fellow messenger Domi, who deserved more time due to her obvious personality. The introduction of a network of librarians and the stifling and empowering power of books is especially insightful in the present climate of book bans. Although we pay them more attention than the librarians do as well, we are almost immediately distracted from them.

The foundation of the book is Ng’s portrayal of the world, which derives strength from how closely it mirrors modern life. It makes sense that this world is closer than it first appears given the spike in Asian-American violence since the outbreak of the epidemic, the widespread prohibition of certain books, and the limitations placed on a number of civil freedoms. Ng, though, carries the weight of these concepts without having the space to elaborate on them, instead using “nods” in different directions. We are expected to understand the weight of historically contentious racial relations between Asian Americans and Black Americans through the encounter between Chinese American Margaret and a Black couple.We address the recent forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans with a single sentence, “do you think this is new?” Even if these are significant subjects, their abrupt presence and departure in the midst of the mother-son connection and the other subjects treated in “Our Missing Hearts” feel out of place. The project is ambitious, compelling, and thought-provoking yet sometimes unbalanced. Given the breadth of issues it strives to cover, it might have supported an even longer page length. Even so, it’s a welcome addition to Ng’s discography and a fascinating turn in a fresh direction.

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