Dystopias are all the rage. With the possible exception of Korean dramas, they are the fallback option of choice for Netflix producers, while publishers of young adult fiction love a teenager in a post-apocalyptic bind.
Into this golden age of bleak thinking arrives Our Missing Hearts, the third novel from bestselling Chinese-American author Celeste Ng, a tale of authoritarian oppression on America’s eastern seaboard that is sure to please the pessimists.
The author’s previous novels have been a sensation. She has sold some 6.5mn books, with her second, Little Fires Everywhere (2017), turned into a mini-series starring Reese Witherspoon. Her fiction often deals with how Asian-Americans fit into close-knit white American communities, but in her new novel she pitches that experience into the storm of a nationwide moral panic.
Ng’s unlikely hero is Bird Gardner, the troubled 12-year-old son of Ethan Gardner, a white Harvard linguist, and Margaret Miu, a Chinese-American poet. At the novel’s opening, the family is in disarray: Margaret has abandoned the family; Ethan has been demoted from Harvard’s faculty to the university library; and father and son now live in a depressing campus dormitory.
Behind this personal disaster sits a national one. A decade earlier, an economic collapse known simply as the “Crisis” fractured American society. “Many would dredge up old lists of rivalries, searching for someone to blame,” recalls Margaret. “They would settle, in a few years, on China, that perilous, perpetual yellow menace.” Doubling down on this idea, the government passes PACT — the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act — essentially outlawing “un-American ideas” and pro-China rhetoric. Chinese-Americans soon become the enemy within.
Bird senses that his familial problems are somehow linked to PACT and the rise in opposition to its draconian measures. Ng’s titular hearts allude to a line in one of Margaret’s poems but they also refer to PACT “removals” — the children of dissidents taken and placed with foster families as both a punishment and a warning to potential protesters.
One of these lost children is Bird’s school friend Sadie, a black girl seized from her home in Baltimore and relocated under duress to Massachusetts. Ng emphasises the flaws in a kind of patriotism that is “laced with a threat”.
Two events spur Bird into action. First, Sadie disappears from her new foster home. And then he receives a drawing of cats from his mother. “A code?” Bird wonders. “Letters in their stripes, perhaps, in the points of their ears or the bends of their tails.” It is the first in a series of clues — a trail of breadcrumbs, thinks Bird — that propels him to New York aided by a network of dissident librarians, shadowy figures circulating information on removed children.
His search eventually leads him to a boarded-up Brooklyn brownstone where Margaret is living in feral conditions while planning an act of resistance.
The novel feels algorithmically set to appeal to a paradox particularly prevalent among Millennials and Generation Z: a fixation on the individual experience equalled by an appetite for tribal inclusion. And the dystopian narrative is the perfect vehicle for that contradiction, combining as it often does the struggle of the underdog with a search for kinsfolk.
But the book is timely not just because of the current fervour for quirky dystopias but also for the particulars of the meltdown. “Bird and Margaret’s world isn’t exactly our world, but it isn’t not ours, either,” writes Ng in her author’s note. The increasingly fractious relationship between America and China is here played into a twisted scenario in which Americans turn on their own. The Covid pandemic triggered a rise in attacks on Asian Americans connected to rhetoric about them spreading the virus. The impact of those events is felt in Ng’s writing.
Ng has crafted a neatly structured story — split into three parts, giving the viewpoints of Bird and his mother, followed by the consequences of their reunion — and conjured up a feasible vision of a near-future America. The novel, however, is let down by a syrupy treatment of romantic and parental relationships. The mother-son equation is touching but hyperbolic, and Bird and Sadie too often sound and think like adults, their reasoning frequently structured like an identity politics seminar.
More impressive is Ng’s treatment of the gradual disintegration of objective lawmaking, the incremental rise of racism and the tendency for people to turn the other way in the face of injustice. Her account of individuals worn down by the “Crisis” brought to mind the ennui in Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 satire on cold-hearted consumerism.
Perhaps the cleverest touch, however, is Ng’s depiction of librarians as honourable knights and libraries as silos of dissent (the American library service is presently combating a sharp rise in book bans). Ultimately, Ng’s skill at plotting cuts through the occasional slip into schmaltz to produce an engaging cautionary tale. No doubt it will be on a streaming service sometime soon.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, Little, Brown £20/Penguin $29, 352 pages
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