A NOVEL BY CELESTE NG
When a writer uses beautiful, powerful language to write a novel about a society’s desire to hide and forbid beautiful, powerful language, you know you are in the hands of an author whose work, whose strong beliefs will change you, make you treasure even more the power of free expression.
We take for granted our ability to get on Facebook or Twitter, to say what we want to say. Freedom of speech in the United States has been a hallmark of our society, something that makes us stand out from other countries…until it doesn’t. Until a faction of our government might try to clip our wings, imperil our that freedom.
In OUR MISSING HEARTS, Celeste Ng, the author of EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU and LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, has written a beautiful novel about such a struggle. Ng has created a United States of America that is now controlled by a subversive government, referred to in the novel as PACT. At the very beginning the novel states: PACT is more than a law. It’s a promise we to make to each other: a promise to protect our American ideals and values; a promise that for people who weaken our country with un-American ideas, there will be consequences.
Evil men and woman always try to make evil look promising, better than the status quo. On the very first page, Ng presents a government that now has mail: Inspected for your safety—PACT. She introduces us to a family pulled apart, Bird and his mother and father. Ng presents social change through various messages:
Dear Bird, please remember to have your mother sign your permission slip. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Gardener, “Bird” is respectful and studious but needs to participate more fully in class.
But when Bird’s mother leaves to become a woman working underground to fight against PACT, Bird becomes Noah. His father, working under the new rules as a librarian, insists this change is for the best, and won’t let anyone call his son Bird anymore.
Ng writes: So now, out of the blue: a letter from his mother. It looks like her handwriting—no one else would call him that. Bird. After all these years he forgets her voice; sometimes, when he tries to summon it, but it slips away like a shadow dissolving in the dark.
THE AUTHOR’S STYLE
Ny’s story, her writing style, subtly and not so subtly underlines the GIFT of language. As we read the novel, we cling to the gift of fiction, poetry, of free speech and communication at the levels we now cherish in the United States. PACT is blocking these freedoms. Celeste Ng outlines in detail how the PACT government functions, and who really runs it. SHE DOES NOT HAVE TO. From all that we experience through the journey of her characters, we know life has changed, people are fearful, beauty has been replaced by the sameness of rules. It is far easier to control people if their language, their clothing, their dwellings, AND WHAT THEY WRITE AND SAY….does not stand out. Even Bird’s homework assignment lacks invention: Write a five-paragraph essay explaining how recent disturbances to the peace have endangered public safety for all.
Notice the word ALL…this is not a society of individuals. Everyone is lumped together, so much easier to control people, keep them moving in that straight line…when no one rebels, no one stands out. It was actually a bit of a struggle to read about Bird’s school day. Ng knows how to use language to increase our anxiety, creating the colorless life the people in the United States are now forced to live. But Bird has memories to move him forward. Though his mother has gone somewhere, his life with her is still vivid, colorful. Once, when they lived in a house he loves to remember, they were locked out. Bird cried, but his mother told him a story to comfort him.
Once upon a time, there was witch with a magical garden. Once upon a time, there was a young man who understood the language of animals. Once upon a time, there were nine suns in the sky, and it was so hot nothing could grow on the earth.
YES! Imagination, this being what PACT wants to destroy. And for Bird, living within those tight confines, living away from his mother, is not life. He will flee, leave his father a note: Dad, I’ll be back in a few days. Don’t worry.
Ng’s beautiful writing is key to the message of this novel. When PACT is in power, the world is flat, the colors grey and brown. But when Bird finds his way back to the home he and his parents once lived in, the world of color and insight opens up.
Inside the smell of a house long unoccupied. A clamminess, the musty scent of air not mellowed by the warmth of bodies, but he expected this. What he hasn’t expected is how familiar it is. The long narrow hallway from kitchen to living room where he and his father had raced wind-up toys, the brick fireplace set into the wall, the staircase rising steeply before him and disappearing in the darkness overhead.
He remembers…his mother’s beloved leather armchair, the glass-topped coffee table, where the three of them had once played Candyland. He remembers the color of light in the evening, when it was nearly time for bed: honey-colored and warm, coating everything with a sweet syrupy glow.
For me, the above writing is worth other passages that can be long and ponderous. So is the character of Bird, who will risk everything to travel, find his mother, search for the beauty he knows he can once again experience. And so is the character of his mother, Margaret, who is able to search and go on, remembering the poetry she has written, risking her safety and her life to slowly, intensely remind the world of OUR MISSING HEARTS.