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This Census Taker
by China Meiville
Del Rey, $24.00, 224pp
Published: January 2016

This book left me puzzled; as does most of Meiville’s work. I am going to paraphrase the press release because it is the publisher’s precise view of the plot: ‘in an isolated home on a hilltop, a boy witnesses a traumatic event. He tries—and fails—to flee. Alone with his increasingly deranged parent, he dreams of joining the other children in the town below, of escape.’

The setting is a world (or a part of it) that exists after large cities have gone through insurrection/revolution. (An environment Meiville’s writing frequents). This ‘town” is a backwater of debris; nothing is new, everything is made out of worn bits and pieces reused over and over. The people just subsist.

Yes, there is more to the story—this is a tale told from the boy’s perspective, looking back on his existence with his parents. He eventually joins up with a census taker as a trainee and is told he has to write three books: one: a ledger of numbers and things; two: a book for whatever he wishes and is for readers; and a third one for himself in which he should write his secrets for him alone.

This novella, filled, as is usual, with Meiville’s intensely distinctive writing is a scrapbook assortment of images and scenes—the children catching bats off a bridge to eat is especially memorable. And there is substantial terror in this story.  The boy has REAL family issues and the creepiness factor is high.

But the rest of the story, for me, was vague in spots—it felt like a long afternoon of noodling around…I wasn’t left with anything nearly as satisfying as “Railsea.” (And yes—I know this is a novella—but still---)

Perhaps in the end it is a failure in me to really grasp Meiville’s style. That the noodling around has purpose I am too dense to grasp and I just don’t see its effect on the rest of the story. It just doesn’t ‘speak’ to me. With this novella, I find I am not as dazzled by his creativity as I thought I was. ~~ Sue Martin

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