by China Miéville
Cover Artist: Mt. Huangcshan © Wusheng Wang
Review by Benjamin Wald
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781101967324
Date: 05 January 2016 List Price $24.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
China Miéville is an author whose work is characterized by flashy, exciting ideas. Books like Perdido Street Station or Iron Council overflowed with ideas--flying interdimensional moths that eat minds and excrete dreams, cities on-board trains that lay their track ahead of themselves as they move, vampiric disembodied hands, and so on. His more restrained novels, such as The City & The City are built around one big idea--what if two cities co-existed in the same space, kept separate by carefully ignoring each other? This Census-Taker, however, departs from this tradition. It lacks any big, attention grabbing high concept idea, and is a quieter, more introspective story than I am used to from Miéville. While it displays many of his strengths as a writer, such as a distinctive voice for the protagonist and accomplished and evocative prose, I found the overall effect lacking. I was left with the feeling of just not getting it, and unsure what exactly I was supposed to get.
The story is told in the form of a memoir by the protagonist, recounting events that happened to him as child. He lives on a hillside, some distance from the local small town, and he and his family are clearly outsiders. His mother grows food in her garden, and his father makes keys that seem to have supernatural power of some sort, which he makes on commission for the various townspeople who seek out his services.
The boy, whose name we never learn, lives a solitary life with his parents, until one day he runs into town terrified to report that his father has killed his mother. The story jumps back and forth in time, recounting his life before the murder, the aftermath of the murder, and hints of his present circumstances. All in all, however, the story is light on actual events. Most of the book is concerned with giving us a sense of the boy and his father and the environment they are in, leading up to an ambiguous climax.
There are hints throughout the book that not all is as it seems, and that the narrator may be an unreliable recorder of his early life. However, I was not myself able to see what secret the text might be hiding. Perhaps I missed some crucial implied twist, but in the end I wasn't able to really see what the book was trying to accomplish.
I enjoyed the writing and characters, but the story overall left me flat, and even at novella length it overstayed its welcome. In the end, I was left confused and disappointed, although readers who enjoy puzzling out what might lie beneath the surface of a story may have better luck with it.