Throughout history, there have been instances of split cities. Berlin was a split city from the 40s to 1989, Jerusalem still is a split city and so is Budapest. But none of the cities are split the way Beszel and Ul Qoma are, the two cities from the title of this novel. These two cities exist simultaneously, in the same space. When you walk down a street in one of these cities, you of course walk down a street in your own city – but you might also be walking down a street in another city with people from that city walking right next to you. People, you have been trained your whole life to not see, to unsee.
But what if there are places no one can see because they think they’re in the other city? What if this is sacrilege to talk about but one young American girl discovers this and end up dead? Is there a third city hiding in the cracks between these two cities?
Have I said too much? This is a hard novel to summarize because the best part of it is to slowly understand what’s happening, where it’s happening and how it all comes together. It’s half fantasy, half detective fiction. It’s two cities with two fashion styles, two types of architecture, two languages, two histories, two cultures … even though they are in exactly the same place. And a murder takes place. A murder that cleverly exploits the very tricky rules that are in place for these to cities to be able to coexist like this.
When you start reading this novel, it all feels very strange. How can you walk down a street and unsee the people coming against you or some of the buildings around you? And even though it stays strange throughout the book, Miéville takes this strangeness and exploits his setting to the fullest. The setting is extraordinary and it is key to the plot of the book. Miéville manages to use this very creative idea and create a very special book, a book like no other. Well, no other except other Miéville books.
Now, I’m no Miéville expert. I’ve read this and UnLunDun. Even though the latter is a ya-novel, there’s no question about these being written by the same author. They share some of the same themes as well with UnLunDun being the place where all the lost and broken things from London end up – including people. A city in the city, you might say.
We all unsee things in our lives – beggars, people with handicaps, things that gets to close to our sensitivities for one reason or other. We ignore things. I don’t know if this is what inspired Miéville or if he took the idea of split cities and developed it to it’s extreme. Either way, this is a piece of very intriguing speculative fiction handled by an author who is in complete control of his imaginative and very different setting and let this setting take his plot, a simple murder mystery, and elevate it to an amazing height. I’ve never read another author quite like Miéville and I definitely want to see more!
- Title: The City & The City
- Author: China Miéville
- Publisher: Pan Books
- Year: 2009
- Pages: 373 pages
- Source: Own Collection
- Stars: 4 stars out of 5
This is my first and only China Mieville, and it left me stunned and bewildered. I agree, there isn’t another writer quite like him. It took me quite a bit of re-reading and head scratching to figure out what was happening, but once I did, it was amazing!
Yeah, I had the same experience. It’s a bit of work to get what’s going on in this novel, but it’s so worth it.