review // this census-taker, china miéville

“He said, you’ll write it not because there’s no possibility it’ll be found, but because it costs too much not to write it.”

 

REVIEW / / THIS CENSUS-TAKER, CHINA MIÉVILLE

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Among my many disgraceful bookish habits, I hoard books by authors I’ve never read. Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen –lauded and loved cornerstones of contemporary fiction, so I know I should read them. They’re bound to be good. And I know I’ll get to Ursula le Guin’s Hainish Cycle one day, so I should have them all on hand at once for when I’m ready, right? China Miéville is been another of those authors for me – I have had The City & The City and Kraken sitting on my shelves for years, untouched, and so, when I saw Miéville’s Hugo-nominated novella, This Census-Taker in a discount store, I couldn’t help but add it to the pile. But it didn’t stay there for long. In my bid to read as many Hugo nominees as I can before the prize is announced, I tossed the slim, 140 page book into my beach-bag for a midweek getaway.

 

When we arrived at the beach, we had a few, blissful hours of sunshine before the weather turned. Dark skies heavy with rainclouds, a cutting wind that all but swept our feet from under us as we climbed the path to the lighthouse, the grim weather and craggy cliff-sides echoing the bleak, gothic atmosphere of Miéville’s novel. I read it nestled under blankets, in coffee shops, curled on the couch and illuminated by the thin, grey whispers of sunlight that broke through the rain.

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So much of this story is built around its atmosphere, which evokes the bleak, Scottish island of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, a bridge-town that could be lifted from the pages of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, tempred by an undercurrent of Lovecraftian terror not quite visible on the surface but lurking in the shadows of the novel’s dark palette. For a novel so slender, it was paced at a crawl, with each page drenched in mystery and secrets, keeping answers just out of reach. How Miéville managed to construct such an intricate and probing story in so short a space is a mystery in itself. It begins with the Boy, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, who runs down the mountain to the town below with the breathless accusation, “My mother killed my father!”. The rest of the novel leads readers through his unreliable memory as the Boy tries to gain a sense of what he actually saw – was it his father killing his mother, or did he witness something else entirely? He is returned to his father, from whom he tries unsuccessfully to escape, until he is visited by a mysterious Census-Taker, who has come to find the truth in his story. In the Boy’s telling of his story, he shifts between past-present-future and memories, occupying different points of view as he distances or draws himself further from the story. An instruction from the Census-Taker as he teaches the Boy to write his book alludes to this aspect of the story’s construction: “You can tell it any way you want, he said, 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.” The reader is alerted to the construction of the story, a story-within-a-story, and its part in a much bigger picture that we don’t see. Miéville gives us exposition only in snatches, making it difficult to pin the story to any particular time or place. The Boy’s orphan friend Drobe gives readers the closest thing to a history of their world, brief and in passing, as he mentions the wars that have left the villages in ruins, the machinery destroyed, and sent the census-takers into the world to take count of foreigners. Focalised on the Boy’s perceptions of his own childhood terror, we are privy only to what he shows us, and larger aspects of the story are wholly ignored, raising more questions than answers. There are secrets hidden in this book – the Boy alludes to them, as his line-manager tells him, “you can still use it to tell secrets and send messages. Even so. You could say them right out, but you can hide them in the words, too; in their letters, in the ordering on the lines, the arrangements and rhythms.”

 

This Census-Taker has so many things I love in a novel: an ambiguous and unreliable narrator, experimental language and structure, a gothic, fairy-tale-like setting, and an eerie, nascent darkness at its core. It begs a second read. Maybe then will some of its secrets be uncovered.

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🎂Happy Birthday, Harry Potter!🎂

IMG_0063I finished work at midnight, kept awake when I got home by a little buzz of excitement. As each Harry Potter book was released, it became tradition for me to take the day off school, race to the book store as soon as it opened and spend the rest of the day in bed devouring it as quickly as I could. And so today, nine years after the Deathly Hallows was published, I revived that tradition. On Harry’s birthday, of all days – it seemed like a wonderfully apt way to celebrate! I took the day off work and arrived at Dymocks just as the doors opened, feeling very underdressed amongst the host of witches and wizards eagerly awaiting the unboxing of the books. We counted down the seconds until 9:00, when the boxes could be opened, and with the book in my hands I experienced a blissful rush of nostalgia, the anticipation of re-visiting a world that inspired my childhood. Ever since The Cursed Child was announced, I was curious to know how the story would read as a play, and what kind of world readers would be invited to step into nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts. With only the snippets revealed by blurbs on the internet to go by, I looked forward to a story that would combine the adult concerns of Harry, Ron and Hermione with the sense of childhood adventure that I grew up with.

I won’t spoil anything about the book, as I appreciated the secrecy surrounding the plot leading up to its release. Needless to say, I could not put it down, and consumed it in one sitting. It was equal parts surprising and familiar, the unexpected built on the foundations of the earlier books: the strength and loyalty of friends and family. I fervently hope that the play comes to Australia – I can only imagine how spectacularly it would translate to the stage. (There are a few spoiler-free photos on the official website for the curious.) I can’t wait until more people have read it so that I can gush over it with them!

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Has anyone else bought The Cursed Child today? Were there celebrations at your local bookshop? Did you find it as un-put-downable as I did? Please share your experiences!

bookish updates // the man booker international prize and an almost-half-yearly-recap

 

Congratulations, Han Kang!

I had every intention of reading The Vegetarian, as well as several of the other short-listed novels, before the announcement of the Booker International Prize. But, lo and behold, time slipped away on me. Serendipitously, I went to the Booker website this morning to check the date that the prize would be awarded only to realise that it was yesterday! So, The Vegetarian has been bumped to the top of my reading pile. It’s a book I’ve really been looking forward to reading – the kind of book that blends all of the dark, surreal, unsettling, dream-like imagery that I love in Asian literature.

 

We’re nearly half-way through 2016 (where does time go!) so I thought now would be as good a time as any to share a recap of my year in books. In between work and university, I’m falling a little short in my ambitious target to read seventy books this year, but there’s still plenty of time to go, right? More importantly, after a realisation that the majority of books I read are by white male authors, my goal for 2016 was to read as diversely as possible. More authors of different nationalities, more translated works, a greater diversity in gender, unfamiliar genres and more classics. And I think I am definitely on track. Of the 23 books I’ve read (or am reading) so far, six have been translations and fourteen have been by non-American authors. Only eight have been female writers, but that’s a good step up from the four I read last year. Uni has given me an excuse to finally dust off a few of those classics that everyone should have read, but I never got around to (Frankenstein, Jane Eyre). I have strayed outside my comfort zone and read two fantastic young adult books (Lost Stars, Half World), which snapped me out of my literary snobbery and reminded me to enjoy not taking myself too seriously, and I’ve jumped back into the -pages of favourite authors (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). I have fallen head-over-heels in love with the dreamy, poetic, visceral prose of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and I am currently savouring every last morsel of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men before moving on to Consider the Lobster.

As for the rest of the year? My book hoarding has been out of control, to the extent that I no longer have room on my bookshelves and stacks of books are slowly taking over my office, my bedroom, my coffee table. (Help!) While I keep telling myself that there are books I will definitely finish before the year is done (Infinite Jest, Outlander, The Dune Trilogy), I know how likely I am to become distracted by the next shiny new thing to come along.

 

What about you, reader? How is your reading year shaping up so far? Have you set goals? Are you sticking to them? Or are you simply reading whatever the wind blows your way?

 

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