Our Missing Hearts, the new novel from Little Fires Everywhere author Celeste Ng, takes place in a retro sort of dystopia, a Cold War kid’s nightmare. It’s the kind of world where people spend a lot of time worrying over un-American values and threats to the American way of life, where kids are taught to inform on their neighbors, and everyone still rides their bike to school.
But the America of Our Missing Hearts isn’t fretting over secret Russian communists. In the process of recovering from a vaguely detailed economic meltdown that’s become known simply as “the Crisis,” America has turned on China, and on every “Person of Asian Origin” who might either come from China or be mistaken as having done so.
The resulting society, as all successful dystopias do, bears an unsettling resemblance to our own, retro vocabulary be damned. In Ng’s world, Asian Americans are harassed and attacked in the streets. Books are banned from schools and libraries, then pulped and turned into toilet paper. Most urgently, children are taken away from any parent who’s been reported as holding un-American ideas, placed with foster families in faraway cities, and given new names so they never find their way back to their old homes.
Bird, the 12-year-old boy at the center of Our Missing Hearts, has not been taken away from his family. Instead, his mother, Margaret, has vanished. An Asian American poet whose famous line our missing hearts has become a slogan of the protest movement, Margaret disappeared three years before the beginning of the novel. Bird has been left with his terrified single father and a thousand questions. As the novel begins, Bird is in the process of making up his mind to look for Margaret.
Bird’s quest powers Our Missing Hearts forward through the first and strongest of its three sections, as he makes his way through secret library networks, hunting down missing books laced with clues. There is something both sweetly old-fashioned and subtly horrific about Bird’s fairy tale-inflected search for his missing mother, his slowly dawning realization that the world in which he lives is deeply flawed. It reads like a classic kid’s book you half-recall picking up in the fifth grade. It’s giving The Giver.
Once we leave Bird’s narration and move into Margaret’s more adult voice, however, Our Missing Hearts begins to falter. Margaret is amorphous, less a real character than a political cipher who exists to draw emphatic underlines below all Ng’s real-world parallels.
When Margaret first becomes outraged over her country’s child removals, Ng has her begin to learn “things she’d been able to not know, until now,” about the brutal historical removals of Indigenous children and migrant children and foster children — as though Ng doesn’t trust her readers to recognize those parallels on our own. When Margaret encounters the Black parents of a woman killed at a political protest holding a sign with Margaret’s poem on it, she spends pages thinking about the troubled political relationship between Black and Asian American communities. The eventual understanding she reaches with the parents in question becomes “a small tug at a complicated knot that would take generations to unpick.” Whenever Margaret is talking, this book has a tendency to swing from interestingly polemic to disastrously didactic.
In contrast, Ng’s writing about parenthood is tender, lucid, and unsentimental. One parent telling a story about their lost child can’t remember if the story took place when she was 5 or when she was 15, because of “how slippery and elastic time was in the fact of your child, how it seemed to move not in a line but in endless loops, circling back again and again, overwriting itself.” Margaret teaches Bird “to pluck honeysuckle blossoms from the vine and touch the end to his tongue: such sticky sweetness.” In her love for Bird, Margaret resolves at last into a real person: in the specificity of it, the sensuality.
Ng had her breakout hit with 2017’s Little Fires Everywhere, a beautifully observed novel of suburban motherhood that was adapted into a Hulu series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Our Missing Hearts is a weaker outing than its predecessor, clumsier and less grounded in character, too ham-fisted in the political points it’s determined to make. Still, it shines in Ng’s language, and in the dark fairy tale she conjures forth.