Friday, April 17, 2020

This Census Taker by China Mieville

I first read China Mieville back in 2010, starting with Perdido Street Station. It’s been a few years since I returned to him, but, counting This Census Taker, I’ve read six of his books. The standouts were The Scar, a alternate world fantasy that, whether intended or not, had serious Moby Dick vibes (and was the middle volume of the loose trilogy starting with Perdido Street Station), The City and the City, which has an entirely unique mix of crime and fantasy stories (seriously, I haven’t read anything like it), and the Lovecraftian thriller Kraken. This Census Taker is up there with those, though I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by him.

It is an incredibly well structured book. The narration is mostly first person from the perspective of a child, though there is some narration from the same writer much later in life looking back. He has three books to write. The first is for figures and keeping numbers, the second is for others to read and the third is for secrets kept to himself, though obviously someone else could read them. There are a few moments that are told in third person, and even a couple in second. It’s clear that most of the book was written by the same person, but it is possible that someone else had edited it. This does make things ambiguous, but it doesn’t ruin the flow of the novel. It opens with the narrator running down the hill to a city built on a bridge having seen something traumatic. His father has killed his mother, or maybe she killed him. Or maybe they’re the same person and killed someone else. Because he is young and in shock, it makes sense that he doesn’t fully understand the world he’s in. Because the locals cannot confirm anything happened, he is sent back to live with his father.

The father is an outsider, he is mistrusted by the people in the town. But he earns a living making keys for people in the village for various purposes. It is unclear whether these hold some kind of magical power or if they merely activate some type of technology. The world could be a future Earth of sorts, or it could be an alternate world. There are things like flashlights, but people travel on horseback or by mules. The characters are all living in the aftermath of at least one major war. It’s ambiguous in the best way; that is, the premise and structure justify the ambiguity and the book doesn’t suffer narratively for it. It adds an eeriness, and the horror is greater for being on some level left to the imagination.

This belongs on the same shelf with Jeff Vandermeer, Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, George Saunders and the like. That New Weird/literary horror/magical realism strand of literature contains the writing I find myself most interested in these days. I’m fenced between Highly Recommended and Canon Worthy for this one.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 24/75

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