|Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng. Published October, 2022.|
This is a beautiful and very sad book about a group of lovable but doomed individuals. “Our Missing Hearts” is a line from a poem written by the central figure in the book. There are many themes in this novel, but a very powerful one concerns the strength of poetry to make people act — emphasizing the force of poetry to inspire people is for me a very unusual idea.
The setting of the book is the very near future: a dystopian, bigoted, and tyrannical era in the United States, where the government has instituted horrendous control over free thought, free speech, free action, and freedom to read books, with a campaign of posters and super-patriotic slogans that are based on enforced fear and hatred of any Chinese people. Attacks on Asian individuals in the street have become a regular event, with no consequences for the attackers. And anyone who shows any "unAmerican" idea, or objects to the random violence and bigotry is at risk of being persecuted. A major method for suppressing dissent is through official punishment of families — after any accusation or suspicion, children would be removed from their parents and given to foster families without a trace. No due process!
Here’s how one of the characters comes to understand PACT, the (fictional) federal law that mandated this legal kidnapping:
“Gradually she began to understand how it happened. You said something and someone didn’t like it. You did something and someone didn’t like it, or perhaps you didn’t do something and someone didn’t like it. Maybe you were a journalist and you wrote an article that talked about re-placed children, or mentioned the attacks on Asian faces, or dared to question their demonization. Maybe you posted something on social media that criticized PACT, or the authorities, or America. Maybe you got promoted and your coworker got jealous. Maybe you did nothing at all. Someone would appear on your doorstep. Someone called, they’d say, though they would never say who, citing privacy, the sanctity of the system. It only works, they said, if people know they won’t be named. Don’t worry, one of the officers would usually say. I’m sure it’s nothing. Just our duty to check.” (p. 226)
The plot of the novel involves a mother, a father, a boy, and two friends who experience the horrors of this unfortunately plausible American situation. These are wonderfully developed characters, especially the two children, ages 12 and 13, whose empathy and resourcefulness is so skillfully portrayed.
This book is suspenseful, and rewarding to read, but remarkably shocking to contemplate the way that tyranny could work. Much too close to the bone!
Review © 2022 mae sander