The City & the City by China Mieville (thoughts)
I read Mieville for the first time in December when I took Kraken with me on a trip. I really, really enjoyed it, but I also had a few reservations that stopped it from being a five-star read. So when I saw that Karen’s book group had The City & the City scheduled for their March discussion, I jumped at the chance to give him another go.
And oh my gosh, I loved this book So. Much. The style is a kind of homage to crime noir, but it’s not too gritty. And there’s all of these delicious political discussions. Not to mention the general wonderfulness of the premise and the way Melville slowly shares more and more information on that point! I went into it completely blind, which made watching it unfold just fascinating. In case you’re a blank slate reader like myself, feel free to stop reading now with the knowledge that this is a wonderful book that I highly, highly recommend to anyone who enjoys a touch of the experimental, a lot of intelligence, and a good dose of playfulness in their fiction.
Are we set? Ok, let’s get into some of the details. So, the two cities described in the book exist in the exact same geographical location, and yet are in two different countries. The citizens of each side are trained from childhood to ‘unsee’ anything that belongs in the other country: people, buildings, cars, etc. While some of the areas are entirely in one country or another (for instance, the west side of a street might be in one, the east in the other), there are other places that are ‘cross-hatched.’ That means that citizens of both countries are walking along in the exact same place, but they mustn’t see each other. Isn’t this awesome!? And trust me, Melville does a great job of fleshing things out, from the mandatory training sessions potential tourists have to undergo in order to get a visa to folk sayings referencing how rain and smells know no boundaries. This is one of those novels where the setting is at least as important as the plot, although the plot was quite fun too (and far more straightforward than Kraken, to say the least). As I said, it has a film noir kind of feel but also plays with the tropes of traditional urban fantasy novels and their different ‘worlds’. One of the things I found most powerful about The City & the City is that it’s at the same time incredibly realistic (an effect of the detective’s narrating voice and Mieville grounding the city in central Europe, complete with Balkan refugee dilemmas) but not completely closed off from the idea of urban fantasy.
This is also the kind of book that is really, really fun to talk about! Even though most of the book group weren’t huge fans (I was the only one that wholeheartedly loved it), I still very much enjoyed the meeting. It’s a wonderfully rich novel that has a very contemporary/relevant feel but also includes some loving nods to the past. If I knew someone who was skeptical of novels but loved reading nonfiction, especially the types of books one might see The Economist reviewing, this would be at the top of my recommendations list. Mieville has used an imaginary place with truly extraordinary qualities to explore important aspects of our regular, modern lives. I adored every page of The City & the City and cannot wait to read more Mieville in the future.