David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell is not to be confused with the comedian of the same name, of whom a distressingly large number of people I know have told me I remind them. This David Mitchell writes gleefully kaleidoscopic novels that typically knit together characters and stories from wildly diverse historical and geographical milieus, and generally feature many different and contrasting writing styles. Cloud Atlas is probably the best place to start with him.

This new novel is comparatively restrained: it takes place, mostly, on and around a specially constructed island off the city of Nagasaki in Japan in the years 1799 and 1800. The island has been built as a trading post between the isolated and insular Japanese and the considerably less refined Dutch, and the delicate negotiations are not helped by the hosts’ insistence on formality or the venal self-interest of the Europeans. The Jacob de Zoet of the title starts the novel as a shipping clerk and is one of the few honest and clearsighted members of the Dutch company, traits which sometimes aid and sometimes hinder his rise through the ranks. During the course of the story he forms an attachment to the unattainable daughter of one of the Japanese officials and a friendship with one of the local interpreters, and goes on to discover some horrendous hidden truths about the mountainside shrine that many young Japanese women have been covertly spirited away to.

The book demands close attention. I have a tendency to gallop through novels and I was finding myself having to backtrack several times in order to check details I’d missed. Important plot points are sometimes concealed within seemingly irrelevant monologues and it’s worth taking your time to read these passages carefully. The preponderance of unfamiliar Dutch and Japanese names also caught me out a bit – by the end I was thinking I might have followed it better if I’d compiled a dramatis personae for myself as I went along. None of this is any fault of Mitchell’s but it’s a good lesson to me not to rush my reading.

Mitchell’s story is in fact a very good one: it’s suspenseful, artfully constructed, features several unexpected reversals and shifts in perspective and it ups the stakes dramatically in the last act. Only the resolution of the final crisis point feels overly contrived. His writing is fluent and witty and he pulls off a number of stylistic experiments that involve interweaving action with internal dialogue. He relishes the opportunity to contrast and clash the two very different cultures and achieves some fine grading of characterisation within them. This is a highly recommended novel – just don’t try to read it with Bargain Hunt on in the background.

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