I encountered David Mitchell’s book, Cloud Atlas, and was blown away by the ingenuity, inventiveness and sheer audacity of the writing. How could anyone have started such a book imaging he could pull it off – and then succeed?
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an historical novel, set on a tiny man-made island in the bay of Nagasaki. This island of Dejima was the sole gateway between Japan and the West, in the guise of the Dutch East India Company, for some two hundred years. The enclave was where two cultures rubbed shoulders and misunderstood each other. And in 1799 a young clerk, Jacob de Zoet, lands on the island with the intention of making sufficient money to return to Holland and marry his fiancée in five years’ time. Instead, he loses his heart to a beautiful but scarred Japanese midwife.
While the love story winds through the book it isn’t the engine driving the plot – what lies at the heart of this boisterous roller-coaster is the gulf yawning between the Japanese and Europeans. However, I’m not going to say too much more about the plot, because it would be all too easy to throw in a couple of inadvertent spoilers in a storyline that had me gasping aloud in surprise a couple of times. Mitchell plays with his readers expectations by throwing in a few curved balls which I certainly didn’t see coming… Although, you might as well take curved balls in your stride, because almost everything else in packed into this novel.
It takes a while to pick up pace as the reader is plunged into Mitchell’s extravagant prose while he depicts this extraordinary world and his beautifully drawn characters, who leap from the page with three-dimensional vividness. The sense of immediacy is helped as the story is narrated in third person, present tense and I’d advise you to relax and enjoy the richness and complex detail, for once things start kicking off the tale whips along at a cracking rate, with all sorts of double-dealing, corruption and dirty deeds afoot. And Jacob finds himself caught up right in the middle of it all…
The writing is wonderful. In these days of pared back prose bereft of descriptors, Mitchell’s exuberant style is a breath of fresh air. And while the story couldn’t be more different from Cloud Atlas, we do get a glimpse of some of that virtuosity in a wonderful prose-poem describing Nagasaki near the end of the book. Yes – before you ask – it does work…
So… any niggles? Well, there’s one. Captain Penhaligon hoves into Nagasaki bay in the last quarter of the book – and I fell in love with him. However, we never learn his ultimate fate after he finally sails out of the plot and it’s the one dangling end that I personally would like to have seen tied up. But, set against the sprawling, complicated landscape of rival interests and clashing personalities, it is a relatively picky point. Mitchell manages to bring this epic tale to a satisfactory conclusion – and when we finally get the long, hot summer we richly deserve, I’m going to take a few days off, loll on the garden swing and re-read this book to once more get lost in Mitchell’s luscious prose. Do yourself a favour – grab a copy of this book and dive in.