Thursday, August 1, 2013

My Face in the Mirror: The City and the City review (mild spoilers)

original here

The City and the City by China Mieville: My Face in the Mirror

I finished this book last night, and read a whole bunch of reviews about it. They were very well-informed and well-written, extolling the mirror-play between Beszel and Ul Qoma in high-flown terms, delighting in Miéville's innovation of words like 'grosstopical' and 'topolganger', exploring the way Miéville wrote the bizarre into the characters' habits so the world became both believable and natural. They compare Borlú to Dragon Tattoo's Blomqvist, who I found smug and gloomy in comparison. I wanted to write something like that. 

But while reading the book, something happened that I'd never experienced before: 

The central victim, who kicks off the whole story, has the same name as me. And it totally distracted me at first, but it also gave me a very personal attachment to the story. Because this story is about mirrors, distorted reflections, and suddenly I--not 'the reader', or 'you'--I was looking at someone who was not myself but had something of me. Suddenly I was the one with something to unsee.

I have never read a single book, story or article with this name in it. I know about Mahalia Jackson and a few other namesakes, but never to read about them, to feel that frisson of hey, it's my name! I was reading along, already enjoying that pleasantly crawly feeling I get when reading a particularly dark murder mystery; the low-grade thrill turned to actual horror and discomfort when I turned the page and saw the name. And then, in the next page, discovered that her academic supervisor had the name of my mother. WTF, Miéville.

I think I wouldn't have reacted like this if she were a random character. But she is a murder victim, the murder victim, the invisible co-star of the book. She's everywhere. And in this book, more than your average mystery, everywhere is a big deal.

Because of that weird attachment, I found Geary's presence even more lingering and oppressive. As a murder mystery trope, the initial victim is as much a main character as the detective who investigates the case. They lure us into the afterimage of their lives, or at least those choices that led to the murder. At least in Psycho we get to know Janet Leigh a little before she dies. In other mysteries, the victim has said all they could say; their life is already archaeology, they have no chance to redeem their mistakes except by leaving clues to their murderer. The scribbled note, the dropped locket--exeunt, done.

Geary sticks around in the story, though: picking fights, sweeping through conferences like a hurricane, gradually turning in on herself. She effects change, drastic change, in all the lives she blows past, and all the characters react to her even when she's gone. Character is what drives this book and its concepts, what Miéville hangs his superimposed double-city on. Geary, and Borlú after her, pull everything tight as they pass through borders, wrap the cities around themselves in a crazy tangle. I honestly didn't see how everything could be resolved, but like the best mystery writers, Miéville pulls it off with a thundering finish and a satisfying ending.

Geary and weird coincidences aside, the real reason I recommend this book is Borlú, who is my favourite kind of blokey, dogged detective (hello, BBC Sherlock!Lestrade). Even his personal life was great to read, as little of it as there was. Regular hookups with no drama or 'love interest' = automatic win for me. And I found the end of his arc pretty much perfect.

I am so, so happy I read this book. Thank you, China Miéville, for writing it. I look forward to reading many more of your books without my name in them.

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