Review: This Census-Taker by China Miéville
Also by this author: King Rat
Published by Del Rey on January 12th 2016
For readers of George Saunders, Kelly Link, and Karen Russell, This Census Taker is the poignant and uncanny new novella from award-winning and bestselling author China Miéville. After witnessing a profoundly traumatic event, a boy is left alone in a remote house on a hilltop with his increasingly deranged parent. When a stranger knocks on his door, the boy senses that his days of isolation are over—but by what authority does this man keep the meticulous records he carries? Is he the boy’s friend? His enemy? Or something altogether other?
This Census-Taker, in its novella length, provides the reader with a glorious and powerful enigma of a story. It is haunting, chilling, disturbing and touching and mesmerizing and absolutely beautiful. I could not stop reading this as I just craved to understand what was going on. It starts with a young boy running faster than he has ever run. Running from some unimaginable horror, and then we find out it involves his parents. The boy has trouble keeping his story straight as he is scared to death, but between this and a lack of evidence, the town dismisses his story and he is sent back to live with a parent that, at least from his perspective, is violent and deranged. Perhaps psychopathic.
First, I will be very straight forward, I have only read one other book by Miéville and that was his first novel, King Rat, which I have heard is not indicative of the works he is best known for. So, for this reason I can offer no comparison between this and a typical Miéville book (if there can be a typical, from what I hear unpredictable is a signature).
What I can tell you is that this book is not at all what I expected. I hear Miéville and I immediately think “weird“, not from personal experience, but from reviews and perhaps because he is known for the “new-weird” sub-genre. Those that know me realize I don’t always do well with weird and to be honest, that has made me a bit apprehensive about reading Miéville. However I was surprised by this, and quite pleasantly. This story is different and unexpected but most importantly, absolutely captivating. This is the type of book that really sticks with you and begs for examination and further thought. Forewarning, if you are a reader that like to take things at face value, you may question the merits of this book, as the story on the surface is a bit perplexing and definitely leaves much unsaid and unresolved. However, when done right, I absolutely love stories like this. I feel it forces the reader to do a bit more thinking and questioning. It lets me examine potential theories, all of which may very well be wrong, but I enjoy it. I find the more I examine a story like this, the better it sticks with me and the more I can appreciate the subtleties of it.
The tense and perspective of this switches about, but I found it easy to follow. This Census-Taker chronicles the integral part of childhood and the fears of one young traumatized boy. It is told from his perspective, but years down the road. It will bounce back and forth from third and first person, present and past tense just as someone telling a story may change these aspects almost as if they are reliving their memory. You do quickly learn to be a bit apprehensive of the narrator. It is clear something traumatic has happened, and that his memory may have been impacted by both the traumatic event and the passage of time. And quite frankly, there is always the potential for intentional deceit as well. I see nothing to support this, but as a reader getting one perspective, it is always a possibility to consider.
There is nothing that is clearly speculative in this story, but there is the potential for it. It could be our world without the modern conveniences, I didn’t find solid evidence that it was not. But you feel hints that it is not quite our world or our past but perhaps a potential future of our world. Maybe it is a similar alternate world, it is hard to say with information given. Ultimately, none of those details are really quite relevant for this story, hence their omission. The boy is not chronicling his story to tell us about his world, but to tell you what happened to him. It is emotional and disturbing, there are a good number of questions the reader can ask, things to think about. It’s full of “what if”s and “maybes” the user can speculate about. I suppose there is that literal speculative aspect to it, but not the clearly fantastical or science fiction elements I had expected. But, to be honest, I didn’t miss them. As short as this story was, I was completely immersed in it. This short also features layered stories. The obvious focus is on the boy, but through his eyes and story, you get other stories that leave just enough to make you curious, some food for thought. More what ifs and maybes if you choose to take the time to wonder about them. In many ways it felt more like a horror book in this respect.
As much as I loved This Census-Taker, I suspect it will not be for everyone. Either people will enjoy the elusive and mysterious tale or they will leave it wishing they had more details. It all comes down to reader preference. For readers that love to contemplate theories and possibilities for the books they read, I think they will love this. Readers who need a more defined experience, readers that want everything laid out in front of them may experience some level of frustration, or they will complain about not getting a more thorough explanation of what the story was about, feeling cheated by not having more details. I am not one of those people. I think there is a beauty in this dark chronicle of a traumatized young boy that is not likely to leave me any time soon.
This review was originally posted at The Speculative Herald.