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Census by Jesse Ball

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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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“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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