Review: Our Missing Hearts - Celeste Ng
Genre: Literary Fiction, Dystopian
Published: Little Brown UK, October 2022
My Rating: 2.5/5 stars
"I'll tell you. But only if you promise to remember. That she was a real person, not a poster. That she was a child. My child."
After a 5-year hiatus following Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng returns with a venture into the dystopian. Being a fan of her contemporary, closeknit family stories, I was highly anticipating what Ng would do with this larger scope and premise. Although the bones of what makes Ng such a great author were there, I found this her weakest work to date. Long review incoming.
The Good and The Story:
Ng imagines a future America frighteningly close to our own. After The Crisis brought financial and- political instability to the country, the American government has responded with the introduction of the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act (PACT). A law intended to bring back days of former glory, instead lead to the mistrust and repression of cultural minorities and the silencing of their voices in the form of art and writing.
We follow Bird, a 12-year old Chinese-American boy who’s life has been affected by PACT in many ways. Above all, it led to him growing up without his mother Margret Miu, who became a political fugitive after her poem “Our Missing Hearts” sparked an accidental anti-PACT movement. With all her works being governmentally shredded and all trace of her removed, Bird has no way of knowing what faith befell his mother. That is until a letter arrives, containing the first clue into a daring quest to locate her.
It goes without saying that there’s an important topic and message here that deserves attention, and I command any effort to speak up about it. More on this in the Ugly-section however.
There is no way for me to speak to the substantive portrayal of the Chinese-American experience, and I highly encourage reading own-voices reviews for that over mine. I can speak to the way in which the story was told. The thing that stands out most was Celeste Ng signature beautiful writing, that guided us through the story. Unfortunately, her other strengths as a writer were less so on display in this one.
The main appeal to Ng’s previous work was her character work, which unfortunately didn’t live up to standards in Our Missing Hearts. The main characters were flat as a pamphlet on which the books message was distributed. Margaret makes some questionable parenting choices “in favour of the greater good”, but I felt none of her internal conflict about it. Instead, she’s portrayed as a one-dimensional good-character; a reluctant face of a revolution for us to root for.
Similarly with Bird; this 12-year old boy is put through quite the ordeal, yet is all too mature and mellow about the whole thing. For the longest time, there is no resentment towards his mother, no anger, no fear. You can make the argument for keeping a brave face, but with us as the reader being in his head for most of the novel, seeing hist internal struggle would’ve helped greatly to bring these characters to life and make them less of a blank slate.
“Lifeless” is also the (harsh) word I’d use to describe the worldbuilding; although you can tell there was a lot of thought behind it, the world never came to life off the page. Mostly, this was due to a of telling and absolutely no showing. Pages upon pages were filled with explanations and background on the founding and actions of PACT, yet throughout most of the story absolutely nothing occurs on page to back it. This is aggravated by some pacing-issues where the plot doesn’t kick off until about the 50%-mark, only to take up tumbling speed from there on. The disconnect and the slower pace put this book at risk for being DNF-ed before the halfway mark…
There is no way for me to talk about the true reason this book disappointed me, without broadening the scope to “dystopia’s” in general. The genre has become quite overpopulated lately, with novel after novel piggy-backing off the same themes, whilst bringing nothing new to the table. This started with the Margaret-Atwood-lookalikes a few years ago, but has since spread to include tales of police-violence and racism in America. Where I am all for raising awareness and actually battling these horrid injustices, I feel like that’s no longer what’s happening. Within the last years, these topics have become commercialized and used as “buzz-words” to sell books. That I have a problem with.
It’s also my ultimate problem with Our Missing Hearts. It’s another brick in the dystopian wall; a well-meant contribution to a valiant cause, but a quite commercial and safe one within an already saturated genre. The titular slogan was a perfect example of accidental activism and (intentionally!) echoes real-life examples such as the famous “I can’t breathe”. I wanted Celeste Ng to go there; to have that conversation with us. What I didn’t want was this sanitized, commercialised story, written for the mass-appeal of a bestseller-list, under the veil of “raising awareness”. Authors, readers, anyone… if we want these things to change, it’s time to make a change and rock the boat. Not too rehash and reread the same safe stuff over and over again, whilst making no moves forward in the process.
Many thanks to Little Brown UK for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Find this book on Goodreads here.