Review: This Census-Taker by China Mieville (2016)

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Hardcover, 210 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Del Rey (first published January 5th 2016)

My relationship with China Mieville’s works are….tumultuous. He simultaneously has written one of my favorite books (The City & The City), and one of my least favorite books ever (Perdido Street Station). Mieville is another author whom many people I respect adore, but my first impressions were not very good. However, I feel motivated to figure out what it is people see in him. Luckily, my last couple book experiences with China’s novels were generally positive. This Census-Taker was another one of those successes for me.

The story is told from the perspective of a young man – an incredibly unreliable young man. He is a victim, he is naive and uninformed, and he is scared. After noticing a disturbing pattern with his father’s behavior, he walks in on his father committing a heinous act. He runs to town, for protection, for escape, for comfort – only to find that the townsfolk do not believe his story, find his inconsistencies in telling to be suspicious, and side with his father, releasing him back to his father’s care. He stays with his father, alone, until a knock on the door comes, and his world is turned upside down yet again.

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A novella-length novel is a bit of an odd format for a guy like Mieville, and because of that, the book is a very ambiguous telling. Little background is given, even at the end, and the reader is left to fill in pieces in their head, following along as the young man figures out what is happening around him, tries to piece together why his life is falling apart before his eyes. You’re left wondering what exactly is going on at every turn, whether the narrator is accurately depicting or interpreting things, whether there’s something less obvious happening behind the scenes.

Additionally, this book is DARK. Right from the start, you’re smashed in the face with tragic events, and they continue as the story progresses, along with undercurrents of even more sinister things. It does not feel “dark for the sake of being dark”, it feels dark for a purpose. It drew me into the book even more, as I could feel the confusion and terror of the protagonist, I could feel the impact of the terrible things occurring, I could feel his exasperation at the lack of support he’s receiving, and his feelings of helplessness. His terror was palpable.

There are periods of the novella where I was a bit confused, a bit lost – but that was part of the point. With a drastic economy of space, Mieville paints a vivid picture, the gaps in the story leaving the imagination to fill in the rest – not in a lazy way, but in an incredibly skillful way. The prose and wording lack some of the “overcomplication” that Mieville can get himself into, such as he did in the New Crobuzon novels. Instead, we’re fed an eloquent and enjoyable format, one suited to following a young boy experiencing trauma, but not one that feels YA or childish. I was never left searching for a dictionary, nor was I left wishing for more .

It’s open-ended enough, especially the ending and some of the details about the narrator’s future (where he is telling the story under guard and incarceration for some reason). The unreliability is further enhanced by changes in tense, switching from second to third to first to third, and giving a bit of a schizophrenic feel. Very little is ever laid out in the book – it’s implied, it’s subtle, it’s gently addressed.

It’s a weird format, but it’s coming from a weird author. And it works.

Rating: 4 / 5

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