China Miéville, This Census-Taker, Picador, 2016.
Audio version available on Audible.
I have a huge problem when it comes to Miéville stories: I judge everything he writes by comparing it to The City & The City, which isn't fair because The City & The City is such a masterpiece. So it took me a week after having read This Census-Taker to realise that this novella, despite an initial disappointment, was in fact very well worth a review and a brilliant story.
A boy runs down a mountain, screaming, hands opened wide in front of him. His mother has killed his father. He arrives at the village below. Or maybe his father has killed his mother. He's lost, confused. The villagers leave him in the care of the village's feral children while they go up the way the boy ran down to see what happened.
This Census-Taker is much less ambitious in its scope and theme than most of Miéville's novels but it gains in cohesiveness, in unity of action and development of characters and emotions. It is, at first glance, an intimate but bleak story, centred on a boy and its relationship to his father and his mother. But, in fact, I think an academic could happily dissect it for pages and pages (though I won't because it was either "pages and pages, and spoilers" or "medium-length review and no spoilers").
While the obvious theme could be grief, it is actually the unknown, or the unseen, that seems to me the most prominent theme of This Census-Taker.
There's the wood, at night, that surrounds the house the boy lives in, and whose darkness and the strange cries that come from it, frighten him. There's the unknown part of the town across the bridge, too briefly explored in a flight and in fright. There's the fog, that prevents the boy from connecting with a friend from the village, the unknown that the mountain is that prevents his friend from joining him, the unknown where another one of his friend goes. There's the violence, hinted at, never witnessed but for one confused moment that pushes the story into being. But most ominous of all, there's the crevice in a cave, where the family throws away the garbage, the crevice where the body of one of his parent may have been thrown. Even the book he writes, and that we read, is to be a palimpsest, hiding itself away beneath future layers.
His father and his mother are also unknowable to him, and to the reader, except for their actions, and only those he can witness, reminding in some way of What Maisie Knew but grimer and also deeper (and, honestly, better).
So, of course, the title of the novella is This Census-Taker, and of course the boy grows to be him, because what is a census taker if not one who orders humanity in neat little boxes, always referenced, quantifiable and knowable. The whole novella is about how a boy, about to be engulfed by the unseen he fears, turns his world into something ordered. It is a fight against this oldest instinct: the fear of the unknown.
The scifi aspects of the novella are barely hinted at: we guess that a revolt against machines of our making, androids probably, happened and humanity lives now in a low tech world. A war also happened, over seas, maybe here.
But maybe it's fantasy. The father of the boy creates keys, amazing keys that can find back lost items for example. But isn't a key also a link to the theme of the unknown? Who knows what's behind a locked door?
It will be frustrating to anyone waiting for an unabashed scifi or fantasy novel, like Kraken or the Bas-Lag series could be. But in fact, it is also in keeping with the main theme, though it may feel as if Miéville is playing with us by not letting us know everything we want to know. Allusive. Elusive. Isn't The City & The City so too?
It would be easy to overlook this Miéville novella. Because of its main theme, it can feel frustrating or dull or bleak. It was because I tried to put into words why I wasn't reviewing it for a future post that I realised that, no, actually, This Census-Taker was worth a review. And it is well worth your reading time too if you feel ready to step into a story that will need you to really think about it to realise that it's a jewel that hides itself.
This Census-Taker is on the 2017 Hugo Awards shortlist for Best Novella.
The writer's website.
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