Celeste Ng’s new book is “Our Missing Hearts”

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Can storm clouds have silver linings? Celeste Ng is politically charged Our missing hearts is a dark landscape on which anti-Asian hatred, book bans, family separation and other forms of oppression rage. But the story is also shot through with vivid color and growing hope, an unwavering yet life-affirming drama about the power of art and love to repel in dangerous times.

With two stellar prior novels, numerous short stories, and a Guggenheim Fellowship under her belt, Ng quickly became a leading chronicler of modern American angst, race, and class. His debut in 2014, Everything that I never told youtopped best book lists, and her second novel, the number one bestseller Small fires everywheremade an even bigger cultural splash: it was turned into a much-talked-about Hulu series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.

Our missing hearts follows a similar line between literary fiction and social thriller, but this time with a more prominent political line. It shares a certain literary DNA with The Handmaid’s Tale. In a near-future, near-dystopian and increasingly authoritarian America, a 12-year-old boy nicknamed Bird sets out to find his mother, Margaret, who disappeared from his life without explanation three years prior. Her father, Ethan – a former linguist now relegated to bookshelves in a library – is broken, but not for the reasons Bird thinks. What really happened to Bird’s family and others is the central mystery of the novel.

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In flashbacks, we learn who Bird’s parents were before him and how they fell so completely in love. When Margaret first met Ethan, she was a bicycle courier and poet. Although she was raised to conform (according to her Chinese immigrant parents, “to be noticed was to invite predation; better to blend right in with the foliage”), she had abandoned that advice when she moved to New York, where “nobody noticed you… Which means you can do anything, be anything.

As an adult, Margaret defied everything she had been taught, deciding that “if the world was on fire, you might as well shine”. Ethan was his opposite: a white, cautious, square Midwest. He cherished and marveled at her, and she calmed down in his presence, loving the calm and “the way he treated her, like butter to lick a finger.” When they succeeded in closing the world together, poems came to Margaret “like timid animals emerging after a storm”. With days spent working and raising children, the life the couple created for themselves and Bird was a sanctuary even as the unrest spread outside their doors. Margaret did not dwell on these external threats, preferring to concentrate on “her poems, her garden, her husband. Bird.” But after Margaret’s obscure volume of poetry, Our missing heartsis taken up as a symbol and a rallying cry against the government’s repressive actions – through no fault of its own – the family is broken.

In the decade since his mother’s disappearance, Bird has learned to disown her, not to draw attention to himself. Children of dissidents may be removed under existing laws and extreme measures taken to preserve “American culture”. But a cryptic letter Bird receives causes a shift in perspective and sparks a quest to find his mother.

Our Departed Hearts: A Novel

Our Departed Hearts: A Novel

Our Departed Hearts: A Novel

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Ng’s portrait of an America troubled by instability and violence and plagued by fear is one the author says she felt compelled to draw as real-world events began to encroach on his writing process. And while this portrayal is devastating, Ng’s brilliance is that he leaves the reader with an unshakable belief that against all odds, people will find the courage to resist, revolt and defend themselves. Like many before her, Margaret is a reluctant but spectacular revolutionary. How her journey unfolds and how it affects both Ethan and Bird is at the heart of this remarkable novel, which is as much a hymn to art and family as it is a cautionary tale.

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