tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

Obscurity is Japan's outermost defence. The country doesn't want to be understood.

Well, I had extremely high expectations of this, the fifth novel from one of my all time favourite authors, and I was not disappointed. In fact I can easily say this is the best book I've read so far this year. Mitchell has chosen a fascinating location and period of history for this panoramic piece of historical fiction: the beginning of the C19th 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 the 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 incredibly dark secret...

While The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet seems rather more straightforward and more accessible than Mitchell's first three novels at least, the author has lost none of his linguistic playfulness (many puns and plot points centre on translation between Dutch, Japanese and English), his ability to shock and captivate (there is a very dark core to this book and he does not shirk away either from the gory details of Orito's midwifery) and above all, his 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.

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, but the novel actually rewards that 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 mostly 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 deals with some massive themes: progress, the nature of commerce, spiritual vs physical medicine, isolation, but above all, this is a novel about the clash of cultures (Mitchell who has a Japanese wife himself writes from the heart when he talks about inter-cultural relationships) and that imperceptible line between enlightenment and progress, and corruption and decay. I think overall my favourite Mitchell book is still the frenetic number9dream but this new one is very good indeed, in fact I can't recommend it highly enough! Mitchell really does have the most incredible mind!

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tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
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September 2010

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