This Census-Taker (Review)

This Census-Taker (Review)

ong-time readers of my reviews know that my favorite living author is China Meville (it’s a love-hate relationship – this guy writes like I should write). I’ve got pretty much every book of his on my shelves. A lot of them are crazy-weird but leave me haunted and thoughtful. And This Census-Taker, it’s the craziest (and deepest) of the bunch.

So this boy lives in an almost dreamlike house high on a windy hill overlooking a town, sometime in a sort of steam-punk post-greatness era. And the tale begins with him dashing down to the city in the valley below, running all the way, screaming and crying that there has been a murder. His mother has killed his father. Or is it the other way. We’re not sure.

No, it seems he’s hysterical – his father (a simple key-maker, though this carries far more magic than the skills of an ordinary locksmith) is fine. His mother, it seems, has left. There is a note. There isn’t any blood. And there is certainly no body (there is a hole in the mountain above, one that his father throws the family’s trash and the occasional animal he brutally kills into) but how can one prove that a corpse has been dropped into that horrific darkness? So, sure, the boy must be hysterical. He’s returned to his father’s care. What else can the disinterested villagers do?

This Census-Taker (named after a character hinted fleetingly through the course of the book, only showing up in the eleventh hour) is a strange book, one that will not conclusively tell you what has happened and what is to be, but more of a dream. After I read it and sat blinking at its conclusion, I slept on it and woke up with my own private idea of what might have happened. I’m not sure if it’s true – I just have a conviction that I know a little more about what took place in the background of this macabre tale.

But I liked it. It had place and depth (that “trash hole” gives me the willies, even now). The characters were realistic – they move with a purpose not dictated solely by the story they appear in. In the end, there is a conclusion (of sorts) and a belief that the characters have moved on. But, as I said, the story echoed in my head for days to follow, troubling me with its implications in unspoken whispers.

If you are looking for a simple story, one where the goal is set in the opening page (i.e. solve the murder or go to war), you won’t care for this windswept tale at all. But if you are a reader, a true reader, you should check this one out. And hey, it’s a novella, a short little thing, so if it really doesn’t appeal, you won’t be in it that long.

Me, I wish it had run longer.