Book Review: This Census-Taker by China Mieville


Rating: C+/ I’ll start out by saying that I probably wouldn’t have read this novella all the way through if I wasn’t a big believer in finishing something before you review it. Even at just over 200 pages with absurdly large print, this book felt like a chore. There were entire scenes in which I really had to struggle to figure out what was happening, and This Census-Taker’s pretentious and vague narrative ensured that many readers would go through the whole book frustrated and unsure of what the book was actually about.

I was tempted not to review this book at all, because I found the writing style so baffling. But I feel that I did my best to understand what the writer was trying to say and that the sense of confusion I felt while reading the book is on him, not me. This Census-Taker reminds me a little of Green Angel by Alice Hoffman, a book I read years ago that had a similarly vague narrative. Mieville appears to be going for an otherworldly writing style mired in ambiguity and lyricism, but the result is more one of frustration than genius.

The protagonist of this novel is a nameless little boy who lives in a ramshackle house on a mountain overlooking a village. The reader is never given specifics on where the book is set, what the time period is, or what the little boy and his parents look like. I actually got the vibe that the setting of the book might be post-apocalyptic, if only because of the characters’ discussions of a big world conflict and the beat-up, hollowed-out quality of the town, where children hide in the skeletons of burnt-out buildings.

The little boy lives with his quiet mother and his brooding father, who sporadically displays sadistic tendencies in the form of killing animals and people (have I mentioned how much I hate scenes of animal cruelty if that cruelty contributes nothing to the plot?) The boy describes witnessing his dad kill a dog for no reason other than that he can, and so he is horrified but not entirely surprised when he sees what he believes is his dad killing his mom. He goes to the townspeople for help, but they insist that he misinterpreted the situation and that his mother just got fed up and left town, never to return.

There’s not a lot of plot to this novella, and there’s not a lot of character development either. The characters and scenes in the book are very hard to visualize and connect with, because of the intentional lack of context or detail. This Census-Taker is also frustrating in that it randomly switches between first-person, second-person, and third-person perspective. The way the author does this is supposed to be artistic but is really just slapdash and irritating. There isn’t even any break point between these transitions, which makes reading the book a head-scratching experience, to say the least.

The way this book is written might appeal to some; for all intents and purposes, it is not a badly written story. There is some value there, but I really had to dig to find it. I found This Census-Taker to be a flat, unappealing, and confusing read, with sentences that went on for so long I forgot what the sentence was supposed to be about in the first place midway through it. I found it hard to connect with the characters, partially because they were characterized so thinly.

To be honest I’m not really sure what this book was about. I mean, I can describe the basics of what it was about, but I got to it’s extremely ambiguous ending feeling lost. Some people might like the kind of writing this novella offers, but I’m more of a meat-and-potatoes type reader. Well, I sometimes like books that are written in a more lyrical or experimental style (I’m especially a sucker for unreliable narrators,) but I like to come out of them understanding what they were about and what happened in them.

China Mieville (who I didn’t know was a man until I saw a picture of him on the dust jacket) is a highly acclaimed and respected author, and maybe I should have started with another one of his books, maybe something more accessible. I can’t accurately say if this book was supposed to be fantasy fiction or just general fiction; it seemed to teeter on the edge of reality but didn’t contain moments that would clearly identify it as fantasy.

I know certain people are bound to come out of the woodwork and say that I didn’t pay enough attention in the reading of this book, but I can tell you I focused all my attention on it and read the most confusing passages two or three times, and I still came out of it as puzzled as ever. The lack of meaningful character motivation and development is what really killed it for me; we get it, the kids’ dad is a psychopath, but there’s nothing complex or interesting about their relationship.

I like and respect certain books and films that involve animal cruelty, even on an extreme scale (anyone who knows how much I love dogs might be shocked that Tyrannosaur, a movie that opens with it’s main character kicking his dog to death, is one of my favorite films,) but the animal killings in This Census-Taker just seem gratuitous. We never get an inkling of why the dad behaves the way he does, and any character development that is given feels like a whole lot of nothing.

Although ambiguity can be a good idea when you’re writing through an unreliable narrator’s eyes, a book shouldn’t be just plain confusing from beginning to end. I think the loose ends should at least be tied by the time the novel ends, instead of leaving you going; “What the fuck did I just read?” I like to be able to picture the story and the characters when I’m reading a book, and this novella wouldn’t allow me to do that. It felt like it was deliberately keeping a distance from me, both emotionally and conceptually. Although well-written in places, This Census-Taker left me cold, and I imagine it will have the same effect on many others.

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