China Miéville, This Census Taker (Picador 2016)
A friend who know I’d enjoyed China Miéville’s The City and The City lent me this very short book. When I asked him if he was recommending it he half shrugged, ‘It’s got a child narrator.’ coming from him, that meant ‘No, but you might.’
What can I say? It’s beautifully written, it’s hard to put down, and even though you realise part way through the book that you’re unlikely ever to know what’s really going on you’re compelled to read to the end.
It begins with the boy – sometimes ‘I’, sometimes ‘he’ – running down from his home on the hillside to tell people in the nearby village that he has seen his mother killing his father. Then he believes on reflection that he has seen his father killing his mother, and persuades everyone else that this is what happened, even though no one can find any proof. And indeed his mother has disappeared leaving a handwritten farewell note, though no one is sure of her handwriting, so as with almost everything in the boy’s experience we don’t know if the note is what it seems. He is made to go back to their ramshackle, isolated house to live with his father, a maker of keys that may or may not have magical properties, who is loving to his son but every now and then seems to enter a weird state and beat an animal – and possibly the occasional person – to a pulp.
I’ve read a couple of reviews that seem to believe the boy is correct about his father, and that he is finally rescued by a heroic census-taker. I’m not so sure. All I’m sure of is that the boy understands very little of what is happening in the world, and we understand only a little more. There may be an underlying story that we can put together from what he tells us – like the hidden story in Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life perhaps. Maybe it’s a puzzle that can be pieced together by someone cleverer than I am. There’s an acrostic towards the end, though what it signifies is completely ambiguous.
So this is a very readable, tantalising and grim story that doesn’t quite tell itself: something like The Trial meets What Maisie Knew. Did I mention it’s very short? If it had been much longer, this level of uncertainty would have been exasperating. As it is, I loved it.