China Mieville’s mind works in beautiful and mysterious ways, although this wont be among my favourite of his novels.
This Census Taker – a book I listened to first on audio and then read because I felt I must have missed stuff – has an intensely bleak setting and emotional tone. The premise is engaging – but doesn’t really go anywhere leading to an unsatisfactory resolution. It’s the kind of journey where you just have to appreciate the scenery because the destination just isn’t the point.
We start with a young boys who lives in a remote location, up the hill from a small town. His mother is emotionally mute, although has taken pains to ensure he can read and write. She occasionally tells him stories of places she lived before this. His father though, is a figure of real fear and mystery. He is a key-maker, but his key are far from ordinary. They are like magic – opening up opportunities, trouble and the darkest desires of those who commission them. He has a predilection for brutally killing small animals and throwing them down a ‘rubbish hole’ a natural geographical feature on the hill which blocks view of anything thrown into the hole.
We begin the text with the boy’s claim that his father murdered his mother – and claim that initially comes out that his mother murdered his father. It’s the first of many hints that our narrator nay be unreliable, and that his childish mind and remembrances (he is telling the story in his adulthood as a census-taker) may not be quite right.
With no evidence, while some people believe his claim, the boy is left in his care, treading carefully around a man he doesn’t understand. Some of the townfolk initially ostracise him, but eventually it appears his particular skills encourage them to seek him out again.
One day, a census taker appears and provides a sympathetic ear to the boy, who pours his heart out to him. We are left questioning, which man is more dangerous? (And, is he or the boy the census-taker of the title?)
So much is left unanswered in this book. I like the sense of mystery – but I also like my mysteries to be solved – or at least solvable.