Census: Book summary and reviews of Census by Jesse Ball

Census by Jesse Ball X
Census by Jesse Ball
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  • Published in USA  Mar 2018
    272 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

A powerful and moving new novel from an award-winning, acclaimed author: in the wake of a devastating revelation, a father and son journey north across a tapestry of towns.

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. 

Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach "Z," the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son? 

Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

BookBrowse Review
"Unfortunately, I abandoned Jesse Ball's Census before completion. I read and enjoyed his previous novel, How to Set a Fire and Why. This one is very different, though – perhaps closer to his usual style, based on accounts I've read from others: strange, dreamy, philosophical; altogether hard to latch onto. The author opens by saying this is a tribute to his brother, who had Down's syndrome and died 20 years ago. But in the portion I read, the character with Down's syndrome has little apparent presence or personality. People who like dystopian allegories, such as those by José Saramago, may well enjoy this, but it wasn't for me." - Rebecca Foster

Other Reviews
"Starred Review. Ball's latest is an intensely moving and dazzlingly imagined journey...This novel is a devastatingly powerful call for understanding and compassion." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. Ball's mind-bending, gorgeously well told, and profoundly moving fable celebrates a father's love for his son, whose quintessence is to inspire people to be their better selves." - Booklist

"Starred Review. Focusing on how to protect our own after we are gone in the face of ignorance, cruelty, and disregard, this work combines a travel adventure with a meditation on human kindness to create a deeply perceptive work of essential truths. Highly recommended for all readers." - Library Journal

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Reader Reviews

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Cloggie Downunder

a wonderfully moving tribute to an obviously loved sibling.
4.5?s
“My wife and I always spoke of making a trip together to show our son the country, but it never came. For one reason or another, it never came, and so I felt when my wife passed, when the idea rose in me about the census, I felt finally it was time to take out the Stafford, to drive the roads north. In her death, I felt a sure beginning of my own end – I felt I could certainly not last much longer, and so, as life is vested in variety, so we, my son, myself, we had to prolong what life we had by seeing every last thing we could put our eyes upon.”

Census is the seventh novel by American poet and author, Jesse Ball. In his introduction, he explains the dedication to his older brother, Abram Ball, who had Down syndrome and died, aged twenty-four, in 1998. The surgeon and his son travel north in their (unnamed) country from City A to the town of Z in their Stafford Carriagecar, taking the Census.

In that role, they meet a large number of people, many of whom are welcoming and hospitable, whilst some others are quite the opposite. The surgeon asks his questions and hears many stories, some first-hand, others more removed. Most are kind to his son but: “It is easy for humans to be cruel, and they leap t it. They love to do it. It is an exercise of all their laughable powers.”

The father notes that his son’s behaviour is not always easily explicable, but “I have never sought to change what is essentially to my eyes, a basic resourcefulness that finds at any moment something profound. My wife was of the same opinion, but surely we did suffer for it. The long apologies we would have to give to the legions of helpers. But strangely, no one was ever angry about it. People became fond of him very quickly, and that has always helped.”

A couple with a now-deceased Down syndrome daughter told him: “There is a kind of understanding that can grow in a place, and then everyone, every last person can be a sort of protector for them. This is a thing she can confer on others – a kind of momentary vocation, and that is a real gift… Some people were cruel to her, but here, something grew. It was a fine place for her to live, and when she died, she was missed”

There are no quotation marks for speech, which may annoy some readers, although any speech is usually apparent from the context. Similarly, for almost three quarters of the book, characters are not given names, and are distinguished only by descriptors: my wife, my son, a boy, the man, the doctor, an old man. In a way, it reflects on the anonymity of the census and is partly explained by the father’s musings on our desire to name things.

Where Ball has the father saying “…we felt lucky to have had him, and lucky to become the ones who were continually with him, caring for him” it could not be clearer that this is what he and his family felt for his brother. This is a wonderfully moving tribute to an obviously loved sibling.

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Author Information

Jesse Ball Author Biography

Photo: Joe Lieske

Jesse Ball was born in New York in 1978. The author of fourteen books, most recently, the novel How To Set a Fire and Why. His works have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. He is on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, won the 2008 Plimpton Prize, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and has been a fellow of the NEA, Creative Capital, and Guggenheim Foundation.

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