A man writes about his life from prison. As a boy he lived with his parents – his mother a trader, his father selling magical keys. But then his mother killed his father. Or actually, his father killed his mother. The boy is convinced of it, but nobody finds any evidence of it. Then the Cenus-Taker shows up to talk with his father.
This Census-Taker takes a three-book idea and stuffs it into a novella, which is at times frustrating because I just wanted to know more, but mostly it’s just brilliant.
I’m a big fan of Miéville’s writing, but I know that his books are usually a lot of work to read. He doesn’t make things easy for his readers. Which is, of course, perfectly fine and if you ask me, it pays off to do the work for his books. But occasionally he does write books that are ready easy reads – and This Census-Taker is certainly one of his more accessible ones.
At least regarding the writing. Because the rest of it is pretty demanding: the questions of the reliability of memories, of what is real and what isn’t is at the heart of things here, and it’s a big question. But it isn’t the only thing that I kept wondering about while reading. There’s also the question of what happened in this world that has obviously seen catastrophic events that literally changed everything for the people there. The narrator gives us hints here and there, mentions war, refugees, persecution. He never gives us explanations or certainties, though.
This vagueness both shows the strength of the world-building that is built on references and hints and manages to conjure a very clear picture of the way things are at the moment; and at the same time, it is frustrating that it keeps things just out of reach and remains vague with regards to what exactly happened. Despite this, Miéville never shies away from political implications, and he doesn’t do so here.
I was completely drawn into the world of This Census-Taker and the boy’s story, unfolding along the murder. I found myself in turns convinced that it happened and very much questioning it, too. That you start doubting your own interpretations is probably the book’s biggest strength.