CULTURE & ARTS

The Bottom Line: China Miéville’s 'This Census-Taker'

A magical key-maker, a chilling mountaintop town, and a peculiar visitor populate this strange and lovely story.

China Miéville's slim new novel offers more questions than answers. To read it is like entering a chilly mist that obscures your vision, never clearing. This may be unsettling for the "Inception"-averse -- those who need resolve -- but for the rest of us it's a moody, ethereal read, and a strange joy to get lost in. 

The author of last year's Three Moments of an Explosion has been praised by Ursula K. Le Guin, who said in an interview with The Huffington Post, "China Miéville, my God."

He's also been compared to Karen Russell and George Saunders, and rightfully so. Anyone who gets excited about language quirks and almost-surreal scenes will feel at home on the hilltop where This Census-Taker is set. 

The narrator is a young boy who lives with his mother and father in a rickety house that sounds like something out of a fairy tale -- it’s much taller than it is wide, and each story is increasingly wobbly.

The boy’s mother is hardworking and reserved, rarely revealing details about her and her husband’s former life in another town. She tends a garden and keeps vermin away with scarecrow-like structure made of scrap metal. She does, however, note that the boy’s father comes from a land far away -- possibly banished, possibly refuged. Crafty in his own right, the boy’s father is known in the town below the hilltop as a skilled key-maker, and he’s visited often with breathless, pushy requests.

It’s later revealed that the keys may possess supernatural abilities, but whether these hexes are the result of real magic or simply magical thinking is never made clear. That’s the special power of Miéville’s writing: he dives right into the language and conventions of far-off worlds, rather than overburdening the reader with unnaturally related details. Like Le Guin, he has an anthropological approach to fantasy and science-fiction; unlike many of Le Guin’s books, This Census-Taker isn’t narrated by an outsider, but by an uncritical character in the throes of the action. The boy-narrator doesn’t pause to explain his peculiar word choices, resulting in earthy, playful, sonorous sentences that are a pleasure to explore.

These scenes are punctuated by flash-forwards of the boy as an escapee of his desolate hillside town, but whether his new life as a record-keeper is much better is left murky. 

He recalls his past, which -- other than occasional jaunts in the town where he plays under bridges with a scraggly crew of orphans -- is marked by loneliness and occasional moments of intense fear. Fear of whatever lurks in the darkness outside of his home. Fear, especially, of his father, who he’s watched calmly committing acts of violence against animals.

His fears turn out to be substantiated when he -- shockingly -- witnesses his father murdering his mother. Although he reports the crime to the ramshackle volunteer police squad, he’s sent to return to his father on the basis of shoddy evidence: a note supposedly written by his mother, and an immaculately cleaned crime scene.

The boy’s repeated, thwarted attempts to escape are fable-like in their tragicness, until, in keeping with the genre, a fairy godfather appears. A trim and dapper man offers an escape from his fear-filled life -- an escape to the far-away land his father originally comes from. The man is the titular census-taker, and it’s his job to keep track of the far-flung people from his home, the boy’s father included. He seems calm, and potentially manipulative, raising questions about whether he’s to be trusted, and whether the boy’s father is as wretched as he’s made out to be.

Like the strange, spare fairy tales that served as inspiration for glossier Disney versions, the morality of The Census-Taker is hazy; it’s up to the reader to interpret what’s right.

The bottom line:

If you read to experience a mood or a setting rather than something more concrete, this tuneful tale, full of gorgeous sentences and strange characters, is sure to please.

What other reviewers think:

Kirkus: “A deceptively simple story whose plot could be taken as a symbolic representation of an aspect of humanity as big as an entire society and as small as a single soul.”

Publisher’s Weekly: “Sparse language and a minimalist approach make this intellectual vivisection best suited to readers who are willing to work for meaning.”

Who wrote it:

China Miéville has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award three times, along with the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo Award. He describes his work as “weird fiction,” but has also said in an interview that he’d like to write a book in every genre.

Who will read it:

Those interested in fantasy that’s firmly rooted in reality. Fans of Karen Russell, Ursula K. Le Guin and George Saunders.

Opening lines:

"A boy ran down a hill path screaming. The boy was I."

Notable passage:

"There is a kind of thorned bush that thrives on the hill where I was born. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. It stands about a meter tall, with compact snarled branches that grow in dense near-cylinders so its copses are like low, snagging pillars. Its all-year berries are blue-gray but in the red light of sunset their luster makes them shine like black pupils."

By China Miéville

Del Rey, $24.00

Publishes Jan. 12

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