>> Tuesday, November 17, 2015
TITLE: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
AUTHOR: David Mitchell
PUBLISHER: Random House
SETTING: 1799-1800 Japan
SERIES: None, although some characters recur in other books
The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, and costly courtesans comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland. But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken—the consequences of which will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings.
I've only read 3 books by David Mitchell (including this one), but those have been enough to earn him a space amongst my favourite authors. There's something about his voice and his characters that just does it for me. Weird, because one of the things he specialises in is what I guess you could call literary ventriloquism... both Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks were made up of sections that read each like a different genre or type of novel. No matter, all those voices had that mesmerising quality in common.
The structure of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is slightly more straighforward, at least in comparison with those two. The story takes place in a single time period, 1799-1800 and in a single geographical location, the area round Nagasaki. We start out with the arrival of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk about to take his post in the Dutch trading post in the island of Dejima, in Nagasaki Bay (quick historical note: at the time the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to trade with Japan, and they were contained and limited to this area to make sure they didn't engage in any missionary activities). Jacob is an honest guy, which doesn't earn him many friends amongst his fellow employees of the Dutch East India Company. Most of the men in the island (including Jacob's superiors) are cheerfully and openly cheating the company, and they resent Jacob's interference.
But if you think this is a novel about a European's adventures in an exotic land, with the natives providing colourful background, that's not at all what Mitchell is doing. Because Mitchell doesn't completely move away from his preferred structure of self-contained sections with different main characters and in later sections the action moves squarely to Japanese characters and their own concerns. These are characters with some links to Jacob in the first section, but those links are relatively inconsequential in their stories, and Jacob is merely a secondary character in their lives.
There's Aibagawa Orito, a young woman whose disfiguring facial scarring has allowed her to move away from the usual life of a woman of her station. Instead of going straight from her father to a husband, she's been allowed to study midwifery with the doctor at the Dutch Trading Post, Dr. Marinus (readers of The Bone Clocks will certainly know him!). On her father's death, however, she comes to the attention of Lord Abbot Enomoto, which places her in great danger. There's also Ogawa Uzaemon, a young Dejima translator who's got a past with Orito, and who must choose whether he'll endanger a comfortable life to do what is right. Even if they aren't named in the title, they're just as much the main characters as Jacob.
I really wasn't quite sure where the story was going when I started, and it never got predictable. I kept being surprised by where Mitchell took things. It's a book that succeeds both as a fun adventure story (in fact, it gets quite schlocky at one point!) and as a historical novel, giving us a really vivid picture of the time and place. I highly recommend it.
MY GRADE: An A-.