Book review: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

China Mi�ville's new work is his most plangent, suffused with a tight-lipped melancholy. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images
China Mi�ville's new work is his most plangent, suffused with a tight-lipped melancholy. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images
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READERS of this exquisitely eerie, stiletto-slender novella should proceed with extreme caution

This Census-Taker by China Miéville | Picador, £12.99

There are certain adjectives that occur frequently in reviews of China Miéville’s work: extravagant, baroque, prodigious, fecund, brilliant. They are well-earned – over the course of his career this far he has gifted the reader superimposed cities, ambulant oilrigs, scrimshawed skeletons, sentient tattoos, oceans made of railway tracks, aliens with no concept of lying, the Possible Sword that cuts quantumly, ninja dustbins, an invasion of reflections – and that is just the tip of the iceberg. It seems almost a deliberate act of critic-provocation that this new novella is a model of restraint; a stark and subtle fable that manages to be both lapidary and nebulous at the same time. “Haunting” does not do justice to its exquisitely eerie properties.

It opens with an “uphiller” boy running into the ramshackle town below, terrified, and announcing that his mother has killed his father. Or it might be that his father has killed his mother. Moreover, “the boy was I”, we are told, and “I wasn’t running for the law, but the law found me”. In the present day, the narrator is an “honoured guest” in a distant city, or so he is called by his guards who say it “with such courtesy and conviction that I wonder if they’ve come to believe it”. He is working on his second book. The first is a “book of numbers”, the third is “for me, for you alone to read, in which you should write secrets”. The second, however, is for readers: his mysterious manager informs him “you can tell it any way you want… you can be I or he or she or we or they or you and you won’t be lying though you might be telling two stories at once. Inherit a second book from someone else, to continue it, and you can have a conversation with what’s already there. Write on scraps and in its margins.” A passage such as this ought to alert readers that they should proceed very cautiously indeed.

The book describes the narrator’s life before and after whatever happened, happened. His parents are reticent and distant, from each other and their child. His mother is local, and once worked in a distant city; now she ekes plants from the stony earth. His father is not local, and is a key-maker: these keys seem to have magical or talismanic properties. His father is prone to sudden outbursts of rage, beating stray animals to death and, the boy suspects, he may have killed one of his customers as well. Unlike their few neighbours they do not burn their refuse, but tip it into a chasm inside the mountain. The boy has seen his father jettison the corpses into the hole, and dreams of a mountain of debris and refuse inside the mountain. The only affection he gets is from vagabond children who live on the bridge in the town below. The only justice he might get will come in the form of the Kafka-esque Census-Taker.

This is a book of hints and glimpses. With deft, small strokes Miéville conjures his world, a place in the aftermath of ambiguous wars, with ruined picture-houses and the remnants of “mechanicals”. Even in such a stiletto-slender volume, there are typical Miéville flourishes. The orphaned children ask the narrator if he has seen a cockerel made of smoke and embers that supposedly plagues the uphills, the children “fish” for bats off the bridge, the boy may have seen a walking tree. The air of profound menace creeps up with dolly steps; shots in the night, the mysterious disappearance of a goat or a person, “bigger and more intricate things than birds” that “pass over us through the thin air, bustling and busy, too high for me to make them out”.

This is the most poetic of Miéville’s books so far. But it is also a kind of riddle. It can be appreciated just for its complex psychology and emotional impact – it is by far his most plangent book, suffused with a tight-lipped melancholy. It explores themes that have been consistent across Miéville’s oeuvre – the nature of authority, the induction of the individual into conspiracies of control and the subsequent subversions of them, the intrusion of sudden, inexplicable violence and the underlying, persisting violence of power. Other readers will want to prise the novella apart like a puzzle-box and unpick its secrets. None of these ways of reading are contradictory or mutually exclusive. It is a work that thrillingly fails to make things explicit and which tantalises with the possibility of a solution.

If Miéville’s early New Crobuzon novels are as replete and macabre as a Hieronymus Bosch painting, this superb novel is as unsettling and unforgettable as a Joseph Cornell shadow box.