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This Census-Taker by China MiévilleThree and a half stars

Buy from IndieBoundIt’s not the epic novel China Miéville’s readers have been anxiously awaiting since 2010’s Embassytown. But his novella This Census-Taker proves that the New Weird superstar has not lost the ability to captivate and unnerve. As with all of Miéville’s work, it begins with a city, sprawling incongruously up the slopes of a pair of steep hills (or perhaps small mountain peaks), the gap between spanned by a bridge. Near the top of one peak, in one of the city’s less desirable neighborhoods, a boy lives with his parents. The story that unfolds will be narrated by the man the boy will become, looking back on a frightening and formative time in his life, still groping for understanding.

The boy’s mother spends her days gardening, and going on sojourns into the lower city, where the boy accompanies her while she conducts business that's beyond a child’s understanding. His father is a keymaker. Despite their personal dislike of the man, citizens come to him with any number of requests, and he creates a key for them. They aren’t necessarily for doors. The father labors over these for sometimes a whole day or more.

The peak is high, and the family’s house is too large for their needs and falling into disrepair. The boy whiles away his time in a large attic room where his parents rarely go, making secret drawings on the fading wallpaper. If there is a city dump, it’s too far to be convenient, and his parents dispose of their trash by pitching it into a deep hole in a nearby cave. This will be important.

The father has another aspect to his character that the boy discovers, quite by accident. He’s a killer. Mostly, the boy only sees him luring stray animals to him and then killing them with total dispassion. Then he carries their bodies to the cave and tosses them into the hole. It isn’t even as if the man is particularly sociopathic. He appears to act out of compulsion or simple habit, taking no particular pleasure in the violence but doing it all the same. It’s as if, the boy says, he has no greater motive than “he had to see an animal fall.”

The novella begins with the boy rushing into town in a blind panic. He has witnessed a terrible domestic incident between his parents up in the attic, and in his childlike confusion and fear, he’s hazy on the details. At first he is convinced his mother has killed his father. Then his memory reverses those roles. The police in town investigate, but are satisfied by the father’s account. The boy demands the police check the hole in the cave, but they rebuke him, and one even spanks him. Not even his father has ever given him corporal punishment before. Still, some of the citizens believe the boy, and the father becomes even more of a pariah among them. The boy also finds brief refuge among a small gang of street urchins, who protect him until they no longer can, and the boy has to go home.

The father is kind and even more attentive to his parental duties, doting on the boy in a way his emotionally remote mother never did. He seems deeply hurt that the boy suspects him of a horrible crime. Through the boy’s eyes there’s a deeply sinister cast to this paternal kindness. His father presents a handwritten note as proof his mother had to leave town in a hurry. Either scenario is plausible. And now word arrives that someone is coming to visit, and to interview both the boy and his father, and perhaps some secrets will come to light.

This Census-Taker is about the way in which the adult world is alien and inaccessible to children up to a certain point in their lives, and about the terror and hopelessness that takes you over when you realize that your very home, the place where you should be safest of all, may pose the greatest possible danger to you. The man narrating his own childhood memories does so mostly in the third person, but then will abruptly shift into second, as if he can only reach certain fragments of memory by bringing himself closer, or creating a sense of distance. What he needs is to understand, even while he seems aware he may never understand fully. Still, his adult life is now guided by a firm principle: “Take accounts, keep estimates, realize interests... With such intent, everything will be more concrete...and you may be more or less lost, or as lost as before.”

The story is, curiously, at its weakest when Miéville adds complexity to his world. The character of the census-taker, hints of far-reaching, official business that are only sketched into the narrative. They provide just enough clues to a larger society outside the immediate story, governing bodies of immense power that we know must exist. It’s understandable that to a small child, especially one doing his best to process the inexplicable absence (or loss?) of a parent, the colossal adult machinery that runs our lives is incomprehensible and frightening. But the story is, in the end, narrated from an adult perspective, and if Miéville felt that the kind of world-building neccessary to a novel was also necessary here, there could have been a bit more clarity in the execution.

This Census-Taker is most effective when appreciated as the story of a child faced with the potential of adult evil and questioning his notions of family and courage for the first time. The hints of a larger story beyond this one, though far from fully-formed, are tantalizing, and it may be the case that Miéville intends this unsettling novella as an appetizer for future work to come.