Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts takes readers into the near future of the USA. The story begins shortly after a violent crisis that impoverished people and led to violent outbreaks. In the imagined present, a new law is supposed to ensure peace and order: PACT, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act. This setting vividly and exaggeratedly fictionalises aspects of our reality: the crisis is characterised by empty streets and bans on assembling together reminiscent of the beginning of the Corona pandemic. China is being used as a scapegoat for the crisis and anti-Asian racism is increasing dramatically in the US, which also reminds of the pandemic and the former US president’s unfortunate language choices when he spoke of the “Chinese virus” in early 2020. PACT is a law that restricts freedoms and serves to control citizens. This doesn’t seem unrealistic either, given that the US has just overturned abortion rights and people with uteruses can no longer make decisions for their own bodies.
It is against the backdrop of this frightening setting, which holds up a mirror in which everything seems a little bigger, that the story of 13-year-old Bird and his parents Ethan and Margaret takes place. By chance, the poems of the Asian-American Margaret become the slogan of the resistance movement against PACT and she is forced to leave her family to protect them. Ethan always urges Bird, whom he now calls Noah, to conform and keep a low profile. Because the worst thing about PACT is that it allows the state to tear children away from their families if the family misbehaves – like Bird’s only friend Sadie, who was forced to live with foster parents after her parents, journalists, criticised PACT. The state seems to want to keep everyone down with fear and intimidation. But when Bird becomes aware of the resistance – artistic actions all over the country, but also in his hometown, Cambridge – he wants to find his mother, whose new purpose in life is to make the voices of the parents of missing children heard.
I would recommend Our Missing Hearts to anyone who liked Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. But unlike Atwoods’, Ng’s novel emphasises to a far greater extent a certain gentleness and warmth that can be found even in a world of oppression. Despite all the regimentation, Margaret and Ethan’s love for Bird is at the centre of their lives and the story Ng tells. I particularly liked the artistic resistance that the anti-PACT movement presents, that Margaret is a poet and Ethan a passionate etymologist, Bird’s love for stories and generally the sense of playfulness that the book develops as an alternative to PACT.
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