Saturday, 7 April 2018


Census by Jesse Ball   {Reviewed by STELLA}
Census is a beautiful portrait of parental love. Jesse Ball’s novel is dedicated to his brother, who died at 24. As a child, the author believed he would be his sibling’s carer. In the forward, Ball talks about the difficulty of writing a book from the perspective of a Down Syndrome adult: how to capture the perspective of someone who sees and experiences the world differently; someone who you have known and loved, who you have more memories of as a child than as an adult. His resolution is to place him at the centre. “I would make a book that was hollow. He would be there in effect.” Taking his childhood role as carer, Ball places himself in the role of the father. The book opens with the father finding out he has an incurable disease. He quits his job as a doctor and takes on the task of a census taker, packing himself and his son into their car to travel through towns from A to Z. There are notes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in this premise. This is the last journey. The Census Taker is sent out with a series of questions and the tools of his trade - a tattooing machine - with which he must mark the participants’ rib. The faceless and nameless bureaucracy of the Census is slightly Kafkaesque: reports are to be sent in and instructions adhered to without any obvious repercussions for disobedience. As they travel further along the road, entering townships increasingly decayed - industrial decline and poverty-stricken farming communities - the father’s questions change. What he seeks are different answers, ones that will explain his own situation, his son’s future and his own pain. Will the world be kind or cruel to his son? Who will protect him? Ball cleverly weaves in the memories of the father with the lives of those they meet on the journey. The small vignettes - tales of heartache, redemption and loss - help us see the relationship between father and son with increased clarity and give shape to the figure of the son. The interactions with the townspeople also help us to see the son: how people respond, and the father’s observations put humanity - both its care and harshness - under the spotlight. The writing is superb: lyrical yet spare. Unsentimental, beautiful and intelligent, Jesse Ball’s novel Census is outstanding. If you read one novel this year, make it this one. 

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