The City and the City (Review)

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The City and the City
China Mieville, 2009
400 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
April 2010

Certainly one of the strangest and most intriguing books of 2009, The City and the City is also one of the most acclaimed. Although rooted in realism, Mieville's novel manages to skirt fantasy without slipping into the genre. It's devilishly clever—and a compelling read.

What begins as a typical police procedural—a murder investigation of a young woman—evolves into a surreal psychological, political thriller. Beszel and Ul Qoma—two separate cities somewhere in the Balkans—exist not merely side-by-side, but within, around, and on top of one another. Yet neither city recognizes the other.

The citizens of both "unsee" those of the other city, even though they pass one another on the streets...and even though their buildings sit "grosstopically" beside one another. An entire vocabulary enables citizens to keep it all sorted out—from "unseen" and "grosstopically," to "cross-hatch" and "breach."

Complicating the investigation is the fact that the woman, whose body is found in Beszel, turns out to be from Ul Qoma. Besz Inspector Tyador Borlu must conduct his investigation in both cities—a crossing-over that is physical and psychological. Borlu must now "see" what he has always been prohibited from seeing...and "unsee" all that he has known before. What he uncovers is the possibility of yet a third city, one that exists secretly in the cracks between the other two.

It is a strange and wonderful mystery, the fantastical without fantasy. Its theme of "the other" has particular relevance to real world divisiveness—in the Balkans, or the city of Jerusalem, or wherever ethnic and cultural hostility exists. Reading TC&TC makes one see the absurdity of hate.

See our Reading Guide for The City and the City.

 

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