Every Friday, in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.
Published: 2010 by Sceptre
My copy: bought new in hardback
First read and reviewed by me: June 2010
Memorable quote: “Obscurity is Japan’s outermost defence. The country doesn’t want to be understood.”
I had extremely high expectations of this, the fifth novel from one of my all time favourite authors, and I was not disappointed. Mitchell has chosen a fascinating location and period of history for this panoramic piece of historical fiction: the beginning of the nineteenth century and the artificial island of Dejima, a Dutch trading outpost at Nagasaki, and the single European trading link to the isolated, closed world of Shogun-era Japan. Mitchell’s protagonist, the titular De Zoet, is a clerk employed by the Dutch East Indies Company, originally hoping to make his fortune so he can return home and claim the hand of his native sweetheart. Life, however, has other plans for the naive but intensely moral clerk and during the course of his time on Dejima he must grapple with company corruption, religious censorship, cultural and linguistic differences, naval attacks, a shadowy Japanese abbot and an emotional assault from within as he finds himself unwillingly falling for Orito, a Japanese midwife studying Dutch medicine on the island. Just as Jacob finds the courage to make a move, the midwife is spirited away to become a sister at a remote shrine that harbours an intensely dark secret…
In many ways, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet feels rather more straightforward and more accessible than any of Mitchell’s first three novels. Yet while this latest novel lacks either the complex multi-layered narratives of Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas or the frenetic pace and Murakami-esque surrealism of number9dream it is abundantly clear that the author has lost none of his linguistic playfulness: many puns and plot points here centre on translation discrepancies between Dutch, Japanese and English. Neither has he lost his ability to shock and captivate: there is a very dark core to this book and Mitchell does not shy away either from the gory details of Orito’s midwifery. Above all, however, this novel once again demonstrates Mitchell’s remarkable ability to tell a tale through a myriad of different voices. Although Jacob’s experience is dominant one, a host of other characters share the narrative duties and each unique voice is utterly convincing.
David Mitchell’s most famous work is undoubtedly Cloud Atlas, which is the literary equivalent of Marmite: my bookish friends seem to love or hate it in almost equal numbers. Personally I adored it, but I know so many others who just couldn’t finish the thing. Those frustrated by Mitchell’s earlier works many find The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet a more consistent read. Certainly the pace is slower here. Indeed, this is truly a novel to savour. I wanted to read it slowly anyway so I could get my money’s worth having paid full hardback price for it (a very rare indulgence for me), but the novel actually rewards this kind of attention to detail. Dejima and Nagasaki are such alien worlds that it really helps to absorb fully the minute sights, sounds and smells of these fascinating locations. Also – be warned – the novel features a huge cast of characters most with complicated and (for me) unusual Japanese or Dutch names so it helps to pause regularly to keep track of who’s who. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet explores some ambitious themes, such as progress, the nature of commerce, spiritual vs physical medicine, and the effects of isolation. But above all, this is a novel about the clash of cultures – Mitchell, who has a Japanese wife, clearly writes from the heart when he talks about inter-cultural relationships – and about that imperceptible line between enlightenment and progress, and corruption and decay.
I’m not sure if this is my favourite work from Mitchell’s oeuvre but it is certainly a very strong contender, and it’s definitely been worth the wait. Highly recommended.