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China Mieville is best known for his phantasmagoric world-building. Many of his books have given me nightmares, but I still go back there for more. This Census-Taker, which is a novella, isn’t quite in the same vein of most of his books, but it is a beautifully drawn book that carries a message about familial loyalty, and the intersection of law and decency.
The moment the book begins, you are running with the boy into the village. Mieville makes sure of it, using mixed third and first person point of view, taking the place of both runner and witness. His mother has killed his father. No, perhaps it was his father that killed his mother. Certainly, somebody killed another body, and he witnessed it. A team of men dispatch from the town, with guns and weapons, to ascertain the truth of the matter.
The setting feels like a reckless land. A far-flung village, sparsely occupied, with very little vegetation: brown soil, brown grass, brown seeds. People are living hand-to-mouth, with ragged orphans roaming around the streets, our protagonist becoming one of them for a period during the book. The thing this setting has in common with his other, urban settings, is an overall feel of despair. People are killed and disposed of without compunction, sacrificed to a spirit in a cave.
The boy’s father is a key-maker. Not of keys for doors, but of keys that solve problems. People come up the hill to see him and ask for a key, and the boy has noticed that none of them ever seem to return. They live high on the hill, among the ascetics and hermits, and magic-doers. It doesn’t occur to the boy that perhaps they are also magic-doers. The boy’s father is foreign, that much the boy knows, from finding scraps of paper with words in a foreign language lying around. The boy’s mother is from not far away. They may, or may not, be hiding from someone – possibly related to the Census.
There are fragments of the book that are written in the past tense, as the boy writes down his history in the census-taker’s book. We don’t completely understand this section, but neither does the boy. He isn’t sure what he is reading there, what it means yet, but perhaps that will come. I wonder whether it is his mother’s writing we are reading. We meet his line manager/ colleague in his first-person narration of his past, soon after the third time he runs away from his father thanks to witnessing some heinous depletion of humanity.
I don’t frequently read novellas, so I’m not sure if the sense of completion that I felt I was missing was a normal thing for a novella. While there is a narrative arc, the ending was the beginning of a new story, perhaps one for a novel set in the same world. I’m dying to know what the keys the father made did, and what it is that is so poisonous about the census-taker, besides the fact he works for the government. Definitely recommended, and worth a second read.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
by China Mieville
Published by Picador