For readers of George Saunders, Kelly Link, David Mitchell, and Karen Russell, This Census-Taker is a stunning, uncanny, and profoundly moving novella from multiple-award-winning and best-selling author China Miéville.
In a remote house on a hilltop, a lonely boy witnesses a profoundly traumatic event. He tries - and fails - to flee. Left alone with his increasingly deranged parent, he dreams of safety, of joining the other children in the town below, of escape.
When at last a stranger knocks at his door, the boy senses that his days of isolation might be over.
But by what authority does this man keep the meticulous records he carries? What is the purpose behind his questions? Is he friend? Enemy? Or something else altogether?
Filled with beauty, terror, and strangeness, This Census-Taker is a poignant and riveting exploration of memory and identity.
©2016 China Mieville (P)2016 Random House Audio
"A thought-provoking fairy tale for adults.... [This Census-Taker] resembles the narrative style, quirkiness, and plotting found in the works of Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, or Steven Millhauser." (Booklist)
"Brief and dreamlike...a deceptively simple story whose plot could be taken as a symbolic representation of an aspect of humanity as big as an entire society and as small as a single soul." (Kirkus Reviews)
Do you read the book before you dislike my reviews?
In the latest short story by China Miéville, "This Census-Taker", you are not really sure if the boy is telling the truth or embellishing his story for attention. The boy is getting abuse by his father and his mother has gone missing. His imagination throws you off a bit because, like a child, you wont get a definite answer. His story is all over the place.
Fortunately, this is the style of China Miéville. In most of his books, he likes to leave the reader guessing. Maybe that is why he wrote "This Census-Taker" as a novella, to make us read it more than once and come to a different conclusion each time.
I listened to this twice, because I loved my first listen so much that I wanted to experience more of the atmosphere. I also wondered if I could find any more definitive answers regarding the questions raised. I could not. I did find much more clarity, piecing together bits and possibilities. It was a wonderfully unnerving puzzle to pick back through. There is an astonishing clarity regarding the world this story is set in, even as it resolutely sticks to its mysteriousness. That's part of the joy of reading this. Certainly a story that begs a second or third reading soon after listening to its last words. It's one of those books that loves being obscure and avoids easy answers, and yet is fully worth the extra time to let the story seep in further.
There are a number of darkly fantastical aspects to the narrator's childhood and figuring out exactly what they all mean for the narrator then and now is a big part of the pull of the narrative. From the start it's made very clear that we cannot trust the narrator, as there is confusion over the events in an innocent but haunting manner. It was well-wrought mix of the gothic and magical realism.
The point-of-view of This Census-Taker actually reminded me of the beginning third of Embassytown (Mieville's best in my opinion), in that Avice, the narrator in Embassytown, also felt innocent and confused and untrustworthy. However, there is certainly much more clarity that is revealed toward the end of Embassytown. This Census-Taker doesn't do that end reveal stuff. There's a reveal, sure, but it only presents further questions.
So yeah, if you need answers and trustworthy narrators, this is probably not for you.. If you love fathomless questions and mystery, give this two listens or more.
The narration for the audio was an excellent match.
I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - Salinger ^(;,;)^
"You'll write it not because there's no possibility it'll be found but because it costs too much to not write it."
-- China Miéville, This Census-Taker
"LORD, if you were to record iniquities, Lord, who could remain standing?"
-- Psalms 130:3 (International Standard Version)
I would probably consider this to be a bridge novella, spanning the gap somewhere between the shores of novel and novella; a scandal with gravity, perhaps. It weighs-in at just a quinternion over 200 pages in a 5.75" x 7.5" format. For Miéville this book is a surprise (as much as any thing new with Miéville) is ever REALLY a surprise. It has the tone and feel of his earlier novels, but this is Spartan and reserved. A couple stories in 'Three Moments of an Explosion' hinted at this style.
Miéville has really dialed back his normal complexity, his labyrinthian plots and prose. This is a guy who knows he can dervish, dance, and dive with his prose, and now KNOWS you know, but is comfortable just sitting there, like a jaguar, all potential energy, ready to pounce. You can feel that confidence and almost relaxed alertness in his prose and in this story. Anyway, I expect I will be pointing to this novel in the future and saying this marks the beginning of a more mature Miéville. He isn't content to just dazzle us with his brain and unleashed torrents. He's good now. He will now slowly unsettle us with his art, his craft, the fog at the edge of our field of view, and the cracks in caves that hold dark stories.
I think part of this is due to time spent at the MacDowell colony reading John Hawkes and perhaps, hanging with Denis Johnson.
At times during the story I found myself drifting off to other thoughts. But overall, this was a haunting story that seems familiar and yet out of place and time. There is quite a bit to take in, and the story is filled with details, so paying attention is crucial to getting the most out of this tale. I've listened to one other book since this one and still it lingers with me. It is a haunting take.
Would have been a good time if not for the affectation of the narrator. I tried to listen bit was too irritated by the accent and rhythm to hear the story.
Another display of over-acting by Matthew Frow. The story itself lulled in so many places, solidifying my belief that short fiction is best read the traditional way.
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