In the summer of 1799, Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet arrives at the Japanese trading post of Dejima, hoping to serve five years and return to Holland a rich man. However, Jacob is an honest type, and it would seem that it takes a serious lack of scruples to get ahead in this pit of corruption. Jacob tries, as any mortal might, to shape circumstances in his favor with his intelligence and loyalty. But what can one man really do in the face of a changing global landscape?
David Mitchell’s GHOSTWRITTEN and CLOUD ATLAS are two of my favorite novels of all time, so though I wasn’t as enamored with his BLACK SWAN GREEN, I was definitely excited to pick up this up. In many ways, THOUSAND AUTUMNS is a return to form for Mitchell – a chance to show off his skill at writing various POVs (though this is written in 3rd person, a departure for author who until now has written in 1st), in bringing historical periods to life, and in believably weaving in a touch of mysticism.
In terms of structure, this is a more conventional effort (a straightforward narrative told in three parts), but the ambitious storytelling is still there. In part one, I was fascinated with Jacob’s struggles to combat corruption and to gain precious moments of face time with a Nagasaki midwife, Orito, who has caught his fancy.
And then the story shifts in part 2, following Orito as she is confined to a mountain hideaway of a sinister and powerful Japanese Abbott. This section, with its crazy dystopian society closed off from the rest of the world, is chilling yet incredibly riveting. Oh and I love the way Mitchell describes the Abbott, on his first meeting with Jacob: “The lips are tight, the cheekbones high, the nose hooked and the eyes ferocious with intelligence. Jacob finds himself as little able to evade the man’s gaze than a book can, of its own volition, evade the scrutiny of a reader.” (p 43 ARC edition, may not reflect final published version.)
In part 3, the story opens wider to address the repercussions in the far east of the shift in geopolitics during the Napoleonic period in Europe. Mitchell picks up all the disparate narrative threads and brings the story to a satisfying, if bittersweet, close.
Despite its heft (nearly 500 pages) and eye to dense historical detail, my attention never lagged. This was due, in part, to the fact that even the minor characters are worth spending time with. Their back stories are so rich, you at once feel that whole novels could be written about them and don’t begrudge them their short interruption of the main plot.
Even though I was thoroughly entertained and captivated by THOUSAND AUTUMNS, I can’t say it reached the dizzying heights of adoration I reserve for GHOSTWRITTEN and CLOUD ATLAS. If you’re new to Mitchell, I’d advise you to start with one of those (unless you aren’t one for experimental narrative structure).
THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET is available in hardcover now. Find out more about it at http://www.thousandautumns.com/