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‘Our Missing Hearts’ Review: Ng Investigates New Ground from Familiar Footing

4 Stars

The cover of Celeste Ng's "Our Missing Hearts."
The cover of Celeste Ng's "Our Missing Hearts." By Courtesy of Penguin Press
By Angelina X. Ng, Contributing Writer

The heartbeat of Celeste Ng’s novel “Our Missing Hearts” is Margaret Miu, a Chinese American poet who sees her work adopted as the slogan of a protest movement. Perhaps we can see a little bit of Ng reflected in Margaret: Though her previous novels “Little Fires Everywhere” and “Everything I Never Told You” are primarily quiet family dramas that see an implosion from within, Ng seems particularly inspired by the current affairs happening around her, from the increase in violence against Asian Americans, to Covid-19, to the separation of migrant children and their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The result is a novel set in a dystopian future where an economic depression in the United States is blamed on China, and authorities are allowed to relocate children of dissidents, primarily targeting families of Asian origin. Though Ng sometimes struggles to balance the demands of world-building required by this plot, long-time readers will still recognize and appreciate the masterful way in which she explores the tensions within the Gardner-Miu family, resulting in a majestic novel that is very much relevant to our times.

Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “Our Missing Hearts” follows the journey of Bird Gardner, a 12-year old who has grown up with his librarian father, Ethan. His mother, Margaret Miu, is a Chinese American poet who left the family when Bird was nine. Not only that, but Margaret is being investigated by the government for threatening the peace. Bird and his father, in turn, have spent their lives distancing themselves from Margaret’s poetry and trying to fit into their quiet Cambridge existence. It seems to work until Bird (like so many inquisitive young teen protagonists before him) decides to embark on a journey to find his mother and solve the mystery of her disappearance, a journey that leads him to discover the underground resistance movement whose mission is to find the missing children and reunite them with their parents.

Ng chooses to set the novel in Cambridge and New York City, and in anchoring what seems like a dystopian society in these very real places, the reader begins to understand the point that she attempts to make: This haunting vision of a society governed by fear, where children are pawns to be taken away if their parents speak out against the government, is one that is not as far from reality as one might like to think. As Ng describes the way the city shutters during the economic downturn, she may very well be describing society during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic: “People began to lose their cars, then their homes. People began to lose their patience.”

Yet the beauty of the novel does not lie in the social commentary that Ng makes, but rather the way in which she returns to what she did so masterfully in her first two novels: exploring the tensions that simmer below the surface. Perhaps this is where Ng weaves a mammoth task for herself in depicting both simmering societal unrest and the more personal — but in no way less complicated — relationships between Ethan, Margaret and Bird. If practice makes perfect, it is no wonder that the latter is where Ng flexes her writing skills; The exploration of each member of this trio is delightfully nuanced and reminiscent of what made her first two novels so compelling.

The omniscient narrator — another familiar feature from Ng’s previous work — is most effective when it allows for the exploration of the choices that each character faces. Margaret and Ethan wrestle with the unenviable dilemma of protecting the family that they have created and choosing to speak up against the inequalities that have torn apart other families. At one point, Margaret’s desperation and guilt for leaving Bird manifests itself: “She wants to be just his mother for one day. As if she can correct all these years without her, with one golden afternoon.” In this way, Ng blurs the line between the political and the personal, recognizing how simply being Chinese American forces Margaret’s art to be politicized against her intentions, and exploring the pain and privilege that her position as a Chinese American artist necessitates.

“Our Missing Hearts” — admittedly with some degree of self-interest — empowers writers by emphasizing how the arts can inspire revolution and create change. Yet Ng avoids a maudlin wheedling on the value of the arts by choosing to focus instead on another question: What is the price of making art and making change, and is it always worth paying? A definitive conclusion is never drawn, and ultimately, the readers are the ones who are left to ponder this question long after the novel reaches its conclusion.

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