Census
January 5, 2019 2:15 PM - Subscribe

When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.

James Lasdun: "You don’t have to have any particular interest in Down’s syndrome to connect with this aspect of the book: it isn’t a polemic about special needs, but a detailed and moving portrayal of a kind of radical innocence, one that brings both the cruelty and the kindness in the world around it into sharp focus. For me, it was the most powerful of the many surprises in this unusual, impressive novel."

Parul Sehgal: "Italo Calvino’s influence has always permeated Ball’s work, never more than here. As father and son rove the country, they enact the central observation in “Invisible Cities”: “You take delight not in a city’s seven or 70 wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” The questions propelling the father forward in “Census” are: To what kind of world is he abandoning his son? What prompts us to kindness or cruelty? Who will be his son’s protector?"

Drew Nellins Smith: "Though “Census” reads, at times, like a protracted parable, it eschews tidy lessons. The result is an understated feat, a book that says more than enough simply by saying, “Look, this is how some people are.”"
posted by grette (1 comment total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I kept my review pretty general and I'd say that it's pretty much spoiler-free. I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, read by Chris Andrew Ciulla. Ciulla's performance was lovely, his tone well-suited to the main character's familiar, earnest narration.

The setting of the novel is ambiguous, gently fantastical, which unmoors the narrative from having to deal with distracting real-world details and gives it a sense of dreamlike storytelling. The narrator and his son are never named, nor are any characters that they meet, as they travel through towns or regions only named by letters of the alphabet. I liked the way that the details of the narrator's life unfolded. He is a widower from the beginning, but the absence of his wife did not seem much like absence at all, considering how much her own story is interwoven throughout the entire book.

The whole plot is meandering in this way, structured loosely by their journey but interspersed with anecdotes and memories. The narrative style is like an inner monologue: conversational, approachable, often random, at times circuitous or rambling. The people he encounters along the way have their own small stories; vignettes that paint relatable everyday scenes, or impart some small wisdom, or prompt the narrator's own tangents. It may have helped that I listened to this book rather than read it, because the voice of the narrator was so important. I could see other people getting tired of the conceit.

The son, while not the main character, is of primary importance in the book. He has Down syndrome, and his father is concerned about his existence in a world which is so keenly aware of his difference. Throughout their travels, the father tries to protect his son but also help his son experience the world authentically. The father often meditates on the intrinsic nature of people based on how they treat his son, as well as coming to terms with having to trust that his son will be okay after he (the father) passes on.

Jesse Ball begins the book with a foreword about his deceased older brother, Abram, whom the character of the son was based on. "I felt, and feel, that people with Down syndrome are not really understood. What is in my heart, when I consider him, and his life, is something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought that I must write a book that helps people to see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl. It is not like what you would expect. And it is not like it is ordinarily portrayed and explained. It is something else. [transcribed quote]"

I haven't had much contact with anyone with Down syndrome in my life, so I unfortunately don't have any lived experience to relate to this character. After reading Census, I wouldn't say that I have any greater of an understanding of how people with Down syndrome experience the world, but as the quote above mentions, this was not the author's aim. It is more about imagining what it is like to love and care for such a person, fitting them naturally into our lives, and I think that this story was very successful in accomplishing this.

Overall, I very much liked this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone. This is the first book of Ball's that I've read, and I will look up his other works once the Tournament is over.
posted by grette at 2:19 PM on January 5 [3 favorites]


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