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Celeste Ng's powerful new dystopian novel reflects our headlines back to us


This is FRESH AIR. Celeste Ng is best known for her 2017 bestselling novel "Little Fires Everywhere," which was set in the upscale suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio. That novel was made into a Hulu series starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says Ng's latest novel, called "Our Missing Hearts," is set in a world that simultaneously reflects and amplifies our current anxious realities. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: That classic no-win option comes courtesy of Robert Frost's 1920 poem "Fire And Ice," in which he imagines the end of the world arriving via all-consuming desire for conquest, perhaps, or icy hatred. Frost's general categories still hold up in contemporary dystopian fiction, whether it's the fever of a pandemic, as in Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven" or Ling Ma's "Severance," or the subzero misogyny of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." Celeste Ng's latest novel, "Our Missing Hearts," also leans towards ice as it imagines the ends of things - in this case, the end of American democracy being precipitated by the chill of mass indifference. Fear muffles freedom of expression and obliterates any books or people suspected of dissent. In her author's note, Ng says that the world she's summoned up in "Our Missing Hearts" isn't exactly our world, but it isn't not ours, either. It's the novel's close congruity to our current off-kilter reality, so easily tipped here into "The Twilight Zone," that makes "Our Missing Hearts" even more unsettling than are many other more extreme dystopian visions.

The opening section of "Our Missing Hearts" has the feel of a YA crossover novel, starting with our main character, a 12-year-old boy named Bird, who lives with his father, a former college professor, now mysteriously demoted to shelving books in the campus library. Bird's mother, Margaret, a poet, vanished without explanation some three years earlier. Margaret was a PAO, a person of Asian origin, a Kung Pao, as some of Bird's classmates taunt. They also call her a traitor, someone who violated something called the PACT law - Preserving American Culture and Traditions.

Bird learns early from his white father that it's better not to respond to provocation. Just keep on walking, his father says if passersby stare, their gazes like centipedes on Bird's face. One day, Bird receives a letter - a sheet of paper, really - filled with ballpoint drawings of cats. Bird knows the letter is from his mother. He recognizes the handwriting on the envelope and dimly remembers a Japanese folktale she'd tell him about a boy and cats. How do you find information in a world where conducting research is dangerous, given the fact that all electronic devices are under surveillance?

Bird stumbles on the answer by visiting a place considered too obsolete to monitor - the good, old brick-and-mortar public library, filled with print. There, he eventually connects with an underground network of librarians dedicated to rescuing disappeared books and people. That ingenious plotline alone about librarians as resistance fighters is enough to garner "Our Missing Hearts" a whole lot of love from readers and, of course, the American Library Association. But it's in the second section of this novel, a flashback, where we learn how what's called the crisis happened in America, where Ng's writing becomes richer and her story more disturbing in its near familiarity.

Here are excerpts from Margaret's extended recollection, beginning with an economic downturn. (Reading) It started slowly at first, the way most things did. Shops began to shudder, here and there at first, like cavities in teeth. And suddenly, whole blocks were empty all over the country. Almost imperceptibly, the story of the crisis had begun to solidify. Soon enough, it would harden like silt from turbid water, settling in a thick band of mud. We know who caused all this, people were beginning to say, fingers pointed firmly east. Suspicious eyes swiveled to those with foreign faces, foreign names.

Anti-Asian violence, children taken away from their parents by the government, nativist resentment in the land of immigrants - "Our Missing Hearts" reflects our headlines back to us. But it also powerfully and persuasively offers hope for changing those headlines. In a final moving turn, the novel dramatizes how bearing witness through art and simply speaking up can melt indifference. That sounds sentimental, I know, but Ng's own masterful telling of this tale of governmental cruelty and the shadow armies of ordinary citizens who both facilitate and resist is its own best testimony to the unpredictable possibilities of storytelling.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Our Missing Hearts" by Celeste Ng.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "HAPPY SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.