An Eerie Cautionary Tale
As philosopher George Santayana once said, ““Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There have been numerous instances through history of this; eerily repetitive sequence of events that have seen governments playing the role of pied piper to convince the public to dance to their tune – and turn against their own kin.
Inspired by various historical events, including the shocking violence against Asians in 2020 following a certain viral outbreak, Our Missing Hearts is a chilling dystopian novel that packs one heck of a punch. Playing out as a cautionary tale, taking bits of The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451 and The Plot Against America, Celeste Ng crafts a tale about manipulating a society and repressing free speech.
The story itself revolves around one family, torn apart by a current regime that’s swept across America called PACT. 12 year old Bird Gardner is our protagonist, who lives a quiet existence with his father. A former linguist, Ethan has taught his son not to ask too many questions or stand out for fear of persecution – or worse.
Bird’s estranged mother, Margaret, is a Chinese American poet and deemed by society as a dangerous terrorist and a menace. However, when Bird receives a cryptic letter with pictures of cats on and a presumed link to his mum, he’s thrust into a quest to try and find her. In doing so, Bird learns more about the world he inhabits – and the lie that’s blanketed him from the awful truth lying in plain view.
Our Missing Hearts is smartly written for the most part, with short, snappy chapters (with the exception of two, but we’ll get to that) and a world that’s eerily close to present day US. These themes are easily the highlight of the book, but at the same time there’s also a niggling feeling that this has been written in a way to try and bag a serial adaptation.
There are two chapters in this book that really exemplify this, and they come at around halfway through the story. Here, the perspective changes from Bird to another character (who I’ll keep secret for spoiler purposes). Both of these chapters clock in at around an hour or so to read each (or longer, depending on how quickly you read) and go into excruciating detail about PACT and the downfall of the world leading up to where the book begins.
While interesting, it becomes a little tedious to read at times. It’s particularly egregious because with the exception of snatching up kids and tearing them away from families, we don’t actually see a whole lot of PACT in action. Thankfully when they do show, there’s a lot of gravitas around their presence that can absolutely be felt.
The ambiguous, open-ended conclusion is likely to be another point of contention though. While I personally quite like it, the fate for some of the characters is left completely open for interpretation. I’m not sure whether the intent here is to write in a sequel or leave it to ponder for our own imaginations, but given the time we spend with this world, it would have been nice to see the outcome of the group’s efforts come to fruition… or not, as the case could well be.
The characters themselves aren’t all that deeply fleshed out either, despite being very likable. Bird Gardner is a plucky youngster and easy to root for, while Ethan carries the weight of the world on his shoulders; it’s hard not to feel sorry for the guy. Learning more about Margaret’s struggles though is easily one of the big highlights of the whole book.
Our Missing Hearts has strong themes and a very believable world, and that in itself does make up for some of the shortfalls. The realism rippling through this is certainly eerie and plays out as a cautionary tale about society.
If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, then the one Celeste Ng used to write Our Missing Hearts is sharp enough to cut you deep. This is not an easy book to read, and in many ways it’s not supposed to be. It’s an uncomfortable page-turner but a very good one all the same, and well worth a read.