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BOOK REVIEW

A dystopian America that feels close to home

In Celeste Ng’s latest, a poet and her son try to reconnect

In Celeste Ng’s heart-wrenching and brilliant novel, “Our Missing Hearts,” 12-year-old Bird Gardner doesn’t remember a time when all the books were still in the library. Before he was born, an economic downturn, known simply as “The Crisis,” upended society, shut down schools, and caused major unrest.

To restore peace and prosperity, legislators passed PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions), a new law under which libraries are forced to remove books that are deemed unpatriotic, students are taught a selective version of history in schools and the children of political dissidents, particularly those of Asian descent, can be removed and placed into new homes.

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His mother, a Chinese American poet, left their Cambridge home three years ago, and his father refuses to talk about her or why she’s gone. When Bird searches for her book in the library, it’s gone too. Bird’s mind immediately leaps to the images of book burnings from his history classes. Did her poems meet a similar fate?

“Oh no, we don’t burn books here.” a librarian tells him, this is America, “We pulp them …. Mash them up, recycle them into toilet paper. Those books wiped someone’s rear end a long time ago.”

“Our Missing Hearts” follows Bird after he receives a cryptic message from his mother referencing an old folktale she used to tell him as a kid, and he sets off to find her. He travels from Cambridge to New York City with the help of an underground network of librarians who help relocate and keep track of re-placed children.

Ng’s imagined world is not contemporary America, but it feels, almost eerily, not out of the realm of possibility. Unfortunately, economic downturns, book banning, and the scapegoating of China (and then all people of Asian descent) in a time of crisis are all too familiar. And readers do not need dystopian tales to help them imagine a world where children are separated from their parents in the name of national interests and societal stability. It’s happened throughout history and still happens now.

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But the genius of “Our Missing Hearts” is the way Ng masterfully draws from the history of anti-Asian hate, slavery, and other atrocities the US has committed/is committing against people of color, to hold a mirror up to the present and remind us of the importance of remembering our past.

It’s unsettling in a good way. As Americans, we easily recall the wrongs perpetrated against us but often have selective amnesia about the ones we commit ourselves. Students will always spend more time learning about the 2403 Americans who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor than the more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were forcibly relocated and incarcerated in response. In the world of “Our Missing Hearts,” readers see how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter and what happens when they’re lost.

Ng’s nuanced look at race and protest in the United States goes beyond the black-white binary people often fall prey to and perfectly captures the anxiety and moral dilemmas associated with times of crisis: the options afforded to those with privilege and the guilt associated with indulging them.

As the child of a Chinese American mother and a white father, Bird grapples with his identity and what it means in a hostile world. At one point, he goes through Chinatown and realizes that he looks unremarkable for the first time in his life.

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The people around him look like his mother — and a bit like him. But then he notices “how many, many American flags there are — on nearly every storefront, on the lapels of nearly every person he sees.” Posters that read “GOD BLESS EVERY LOYAL AMERICAN” and “AMERICAN OWNED AND RUN” paper every storefront until he gets out of Chinatown. Others, it seems, are “more confident that their loyalty will be assumed.”

“Our Missing Hearts” invites readers to unpack their own feelings of discomfort along with him and lean in to the complexity of our collective (or sometimes, not so collective) memory. The novel may be a departure from Ng’s previous books in terms of genre, but her fans will recognize her rich world building and the way she artfully captures the tender love between mother and child. It’s the book we need right now: an almost therapeutic way to look at our collective trauma through fresh eyes.

In an author’s note at the beginning of the book, Ng articulates the questions raised through the reckonings of the last few years: “Can we actually make a difference? How can we teach our children to make the world better when we ourselves have failed to do so?”

While there are no easy answers, what I do know is that this is the book I will pass down to my children when they ask me what it was like to live through this time in history: the pandemic, anti-Asian attacks, and the racial justice protests that have come to define our moment. It captures the difficulty of bearing witness at personal cost to oneself and caring about things even when they seem beyond fixing.

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OUR MISSING HEARTS

By Celeste Ng

Penguin Press, 352 pages, $29

Serena Puang is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. Follow her on Twitter @serenapuang.