TITLE: This Census-Taker
AUTHOR: China Miéville
PUBLISHER: Del Ray
RELEASE DATE: January 12, 2016
GENRE: Magical Realism, Adult Fiction
PAGE COUNT: 210
China Miéville’s brand new novella boasts contemporary style as well as the grace of an old classic. It uses the power of silence and suggestion to make a lasting emotional impact.
Isolated on a mountaintop with his parents, a seven-year-old boy believes his key-maker father is a murderer. Lacking proof, he has no option but to live under a shadow of fear.
A boy ran down a hill path screaming. The boy was I. He held his hands up and out in front of him as if he’d dipped them in paint and was coming to make a picture, to press them down to paper, but all there was on him was dirt. There was no blood on his palms – page 1
The unconventional use of point of view in the opening paragraph drew me in. Throughout the novella, the unnamed narrator flows between first, second, and third person points of view. Although this may sound like overkill, the different viewpoints achieve different variations of emotional intimacy. I felt like the grown-up narrator was distancing himself from his seven-year-old self, possibly to finish mourning his unhappy childhood.
The atmosphere of dread is palpable. Even before the boy fears his father for being a murderer, he has an unhealthy, shame-driven respect for his parents, fuelled by their coldness towards him. As the plot thickens, the tension between father and son develops insidiously.
My father passed me. He looked briefly at me as you might at a stump or a broken machine or anything that’s specific only in that it’s in your way, to walk around it as my father did me. I knew he was taking the dead bird to the rubbish hole, that he’d throw it up so it would curve as it had to and descend; I knew that day my father was feeding only the darkness – page 63
I appreciate how believable the dialogue is. Since the boy internalises his feelings, he observes rather than speaks most of the time. The pared back dialogue leaves only what’s crucial to the plot.
The mother-son relationship in This Census-Taker stood out to me. The boy’s mother never shows conventionally maternal love and empathy. This contrasts with the boy’s relationship with Samma, a street girl who risks her own safety to protect him. I like that the mother disrupts gender stereotypes to be cold and self-serving, rather than warm and welcoming.
When my mother gave a sort of shudder and held out her hand I found out I was crying. She didn’t sweep me up or whisper to me but she rose and stumbled urgently toward me through the ankle-traps of her vegetables and reached for me and I came to her with my own arms wide and she took both my hands in one of hers and walk-dragged me as fast as she could out of sight of the house, out of earshot of the impacts … My mother leaned back on a tree. She still held my hands at the end of her stiff arm, so I could go no further from nor get any closer to her – page 72
Silence is embedded throughout the story. Although he describes the mountain setting richly, Miéville deliberately leaves some gaps unfilled to reflect how little the boy knows of the outside world. We can only speculate on what else is out there.
This novella represents unhealthy relationships from a child’s point of view. However your imagination fills in the gaps, This Census-Taker is gripping and memorable.