– by Michael Ritchie, Book Reviewer –
Author: China Miéville
Publication: January 5, 2016
In a small town in the mountains, a young, lonely boy runs screaming down the hill after witnessing something traumatic. He tries to flee, but must return to his increasingly deranged parent and now can only dream of escape, of living with the children in the town below. It seems an impossible hope, until a man turns up on the doorstep asking questions. Is he a friend, an enemy, or something else entirely?
Miéville is one of the finest writers working today; his writing is sharp and intelligent, but he’s clearly also a bit insane. Although his other novels (the ones I’ve read, anyway) give us a lot of detail on something strange and bizarre, here the information we have is sparse. The location of the story is never given; nor is the name or age of the narrator, or that of his parents. We are left with black holes as wide as the rubbish hole that forms a central location in the tale.
It’s also impossible to say what’s really going on here. There’s a suggestion that there are supernatural elements to the tale, but we get no definitive proof either way. The boy’s father is a key maker. He takes requests from people in the town as to what they need their key to do, and makes it. While this might appear mundane, there are implications that all might not be quite as it seems. The boy even mentions that he believes his father has created a key that has kept the boy trapped in his house.
The census-taker of the title doesn’t appear until quite late in the book. Most of the story is actually about the relationship between the boy and his parents. There are themes of fairness, struggle, loneliness and the etiquette of secrets. The characters are well realised and Miéville makes us care about the poor, lonely narrator, trapped in his house on the hill, unsure of anything that’s going on around him, feeling like the world is against him. Miéville paints beautifully with language and his style is remarkable, managing to do a lot with a little. So many questions are unanswered simply because answering them would remove some of the magic and intrigue.
The author pens a world that is oddly familiar yet strangely foreign, and you read it like it’s a long-forgotten postcard from a friend, or something you studied in history class a long time ago. It doesn’t feel altogether new, but you can’t place quite exactly where you heard it before. And yet it’s entirely fresh and stunning.
While I’ll admit that this isn’t Miéville’s finest novel, it’s nonetheless haunting and beautiful, and a good introduction to his heftier tomes.