This Census Taker, by China Mieville just didn’t work for me. I’m not sure whether that’s my fault or Miéville’s, but I found it very frustrating to read. It has quite a strong style (and I admit, I prefer my prose transparent), and is quite poetic, and the narrator has the infuriating habit of changing from ‘I’ to ‘the boy’ or even ‘you’. I am sure that this is intentional, but it dragged me out of the story every time.
Which was not, on the whole, a terrible thing, because I wasn’t enjoying the story very much.
It’s hard to say what the story is about. There is a boy, who was raised in a fairly isolated place above the down by his parents. There is his father who is gentle and kind except when he beats animals to death. He also quite probably murders the boy’s mother, though this is ambiguous, and he almost certainly murders others, but this is also not clear. These deaths are disappearances, or we have the not-necessarily-reliable narration of the boy, or we only see them obliquely. There are other children who believe the boy about this; there are villagers who believe him enough not to trade with the father, but not enough not to leave the boy in the father’s care. There are magical keys, but it is hard to say what they unlock. The children who believe the boy disappear, too, and one has to wonder if the father killed them.
The tone is weirdly serene for a book with this much implied and sometimes outright violence. And really, if there are murders in a book, I would much prefer to be sure that they happened. Is this so much to ask? The pacing is also bizarre. The book itself appeared to have 275 pages. At around 190 pages, I thought I possibly understood enough of the premise to describe it in my notes. Then – hooray! Suddenly there is action and movement and things falling into place and – oops, sorry, the book is actually only 200 pages long, the rest is previews of other work, we’re all done here.
I honestly don’t know what to make of this story. It’s disturbing and strange and full of cruelty to animals, and I think only barely falls into the realm of SFF. I think I like it more than the De Valle, but once again, I feel like I’m missing something. A key, perhaps, which is somewhat ironic…