Thursday, May 5, 2016

This Census Taker

This Census-TakerThis Census-Taker by China Miéville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of China Mieville’s work. I got hooked with Perido Street Station, and I think I’ve read everything that he’s written since. His books are always chock full of weirdly imaginative stuff, and they often veer off into unexpected places. This book is quite a bit simpler than most of his other books, and on the surface it’s not that weird. But just under the surface is a simmering stew of darkness and strangeness. I found it disturbing to read, and put it down several times, because it was just…uncomfortable for me to read it. Let me see if I can explain.

The book is set in a town in an unnamed country and unspecified time. They seem to have some modern conveniences such as electricity, but in other regards the place seems Medieval. The book is narrated by a man who is recalling events from his childhood, beginning with him seeing his father kill his mother. But the narrative does not flow linearly, nor is the narration always first person. Sometimes it switches to second person and then into third person - often doing so on the same page. As a reader, this is quite unsettling (which, I’m sure, is Mieville’s goal.) Another unsettling thing is the town and society. It seems normal, most of the time, but their are oddities that skew it just a bit off center, again making the reader uncomfortable. The final bit of off-putting storytelling is the plot point of the murder. It’s given to us up-front, but then we go back in time before the murder and see the boy’s life leading up to it. The murder hangs over the narrative like a dark shadow, and the father’s behavior is just creepy enough to see how the murder could happen. But we also get hints that maybe the boy is making things up, maybe it was his mother who killed his father, maybe the boy is crazy. So the reader is carried along a dark and twisting path, never quite feeling secure.

All of this adds up to a strange story, but one that is masterfully told. Mieville’s experimentation with varying points of view fits this tale perfectly. Fans of Mieville will not be disappointed, though newcomers to his work might just be confused and wonder what all the fuss is about. Personally, this is not my favorite of his, but I can appreciate his skill to create such a story.

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