Having wanted to read Jesse Ball’s work for such a long time, and finding myself unable to locate copies in enormous bookshops, I was rather surprised when I found a copy of his 2018 novel, Census, in my local library. Whilst a prolific author, Ball’s books seem few and far between in the United Kingdom; this is a real shame, as I adored Census.
The premise of Census is relatively simple. A widower and former doctor, who has just discovered that he is dying, decides to sign up as a census taker, in order to have one last trip across his unnamed country with his son. They will travel ‘from the town of A to the town of Z.’ The novel’s simple structure thus follows the alphabet, tracking their journey from beginning to end. Ball is eager for us to ‘… watch and begin to understand what it is to love this boy, and wonder what will happen when his father is gone, because soon he will be gone.’
Indelible marks are made on each person the census taker comes across. He tattoos a specific mark on a specific rib, and reflects: ‘There are those who say the census is barbaric, and they bring this as evidence. But did I not let a census taker make those marks on myself, and on my son, and on my wife in censuses past?’ He goes on to comment: ‘Part of giving the census is being able to argue on its behalf. Not everyone will just agree. Not everybody will permit themselves to be marked. And this is especially true the farther you go, or so it seems.’
A touching preface has been included, in which Ball writes of his own brother, Abram, who had Down’s Syndrome, and who passed away when he was just 24. Ball wanted to explore his brother, and what it meant to love and care for him, in this novel. ‘But,’ he goes on, ‘it is not so easy to write a book about someone you know, much less someone long dead, when the memories you have of him are like some often trampled garden. I did’t see exactly it could be done, until I realized I would make a book that was hollow. I would place him in the middle of it, and write around him for the most part. He would be there in his effect.’
Much of the novel revolves around the relationship between the unnamed father and son, as well as the connections which they make with those whom they meet along the way. ‘How is it,’ the father asks, ‘that three people can just learn to laugh, suddenly, at anything that is said? We were like that – drawn implacably to an unaccountable joy – and then spinning along its edges gratefully.’
There are some rather touching scenes to be found within Census. The father and son are treated very kindly by an older couple towards the end of their journey, for instance, and the wife explains: ‘My daughter was like your son. She is dead now for many years… I can see from the way you are with him that you see – you see what we saw, that they experience the world as we do, and maybe even, maybe even in a clearer light.’ In this manner, we learn something of each of those whom the pair meet, and smaller stories form within the wider narrative.
Other reviewers have commented that Ball’s language is simplistic, but I really liked the understated beauty of it, in passages such as the following: ‘The country was becoming rougher and rougher as we moved into the mountains. There was pine-forest, precipice, lake and stream, all drawn like lines in white ink. We bathed in a stream under a chalk sky, and it was the cold people sometimes speak of – that rare cold, the one you haven’t felt before, that cold you can only feel once. People say they feel it when a ghost is in the room.’
From the outset, I was absorbed in Ball’s prose, and intrigued by the unfolding story. As one might expect from the preface, there is something achingly melancholy at the novel’s core. It is both philosophical and remarkably clever at points, and I found the entirety wholly engaging.
Census is an illuminating novel, perhaps all the more so due to the lack of specific named identities and geographical markers, and discussion about the son’s condition. So well considered, beautiful and thoughtful, Census is a moving tribute to Ball’s brother, Abram, and a novel which really spoke to me.