Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The City & The City

I fully intended to read and review Ken St. Andre's books Dragon Child: Just A Thief From Khazan (ISBN: 9781438237855) & Griffin Feathers (ISBN: 9781438232263) this summer, but surprisingly they're not available via interlibrary loan. That's strange given that Ken is a librarian. You'd think that if anyone's books would be available at the library it would be a librarian's. So, with apologies to Ken, here instead is a review of China Miéville's novel, The City & The City.

The book is told in the first-person style of the classic roman noir. Our narrator is Tyador Borlú, a police inspector in the fictional Eastern European city of Besźel. When the body of a young woman is discovered in a skate park, Borlú finds himself involved in a case that is anything but ordinary.

But then Besźel itself is anything but ordinary. It is a twin city, existing alongside the culturally distinct city of Ul Qoma. These cities don't stand cheek-by-jowl like the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul, but rather they overlap and interpenetrate each other. The are kept separate by custom and habit, by the practice of training the citizens of one to "unsee" the buildings and citizens of the other.

To violate this cultural taboo is a serious matter. It puts the individual in a state of "breach" and subjects them to the authority of the mysterious and powerful organization Breach. Few who fall into its hands are heard from again.

This central conceit of the novel is a multivalent device and pregnant with metaphor. Not only is it analogous to various historically divided geographies, such as Berlin, or Jerusalem, it also evokes more subtle cultural divides. It is evocative of the "unseeing" most citizens practice when confronted with the immeserated homeless populations on their own streets.

The novel's flaws are few and minor. By adopting the milieu of the roman noir to unfold his narrative, Miéville is subject to the strictures of that form, and one result is that the plot unfolds in rather routine fashion that seems at odds with the daring urban geography. And Miéville never captures the noir voice and cadence the way that, for example, Leigh Brackett did in her (conventional) hard-boiled masterpiece, No Good from a Corpse (1944).

But those slight shortcomings don't detract from the overall book. The City & The City is a subtle, imaginative and highly original novel that you won't want to unsee.

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