The City and the City by China Mieville – Review

I feel like I have quite an affinity with China Mieville. In interviews he’s often described as a lefty-leaning social science academic with a penchant for ‘weird fiction’ – a tag that could easily be applied to myself. When I read his novels I often get a sense of shared experience. Several characters in this novel are PhD students (and academics) and this world is rendered more truthfully than many other novels I’ve read featuring universities. It’s also clear that he has a strong understanding of the political world and one of the strengths of his novels is how he conjures up plausible international crises within fantastical landscapes.

The City and the City begins with a murder. A young woman’s body is discovered near a skatepark in the city of Beszel, a place somewhere on the eastern edge of Europe. Borlu, the investigator charged with solving the crime, soon finds that the woman was an American student who lived in the ‘neighbouring’ city of Ul Qoma. Slowly the reader learns of the complicated relationship between these two places. We come to find that the two cities overlap, that borders are confused by crosshatched areas where a space can belong to both cities and to neither. Citizens of one city must learn to ‘unsee’ citizens of the other or face ‘Breach’ – a kind of secret police force who appear subject to no other power than their own.The complex international relations between the cities and ‘Breach’ itself frustrates Borlu’s attempts to solve the murder and he begins to fear that his own investigations will create problems for himself. Then, of course, Borlu starts to hear whispers of a secret – of a third city – one that may have cost the young woman her life and put those of her colleagues in danger.

Mieville seems to be someone who enjoys conjuring up the strange and unusual but who’s work is grounded in reality, and no more so in the City and the City. Countries have warred with each other for centuries over where the borders between them lie. Peace is often tentative and maintained only by complex and delicate diplomacy. On a more domestic level, anyone who lives in a city may recognize the art of ‘unseeing’. We do this all the time. We may live in close proximity to so many people and although our physical selves pass and cross over, may never actually see them, if shop in different places, frequent different bars or work in different industries.

The City and the City is the type of novel I’m really drawn to but if I have any criticisms of it it’s that the description of the world could have been smoothed out. The descriptions of the landscapes and the people in it were vague at times and I occasionally had difficulty getting my head around its structure. However, this is by no means a fatal flaw.