Wednesday 13 December 2017

Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

(Sceptre, £23.45 h/b)

My suspicions about the Booker Prize were confirmed when I read David Mitchell's third book, Cloud Atlas. What a wonderful novel, I thought; or rather, six wonderful novellas wrapped around each other like a Russian doll. Was there really a better Booker candidate in 2004 than this borderline masterpiece? I doubted it, and still do.

I then searched out the rest of the English author's writings (now domiciled, with his Japanese wife and their children, in Ireland). Oddly, I preferred the earlier works -- Ghostwritten and number9dream -- to his most recent, Black Swan Green, which I found somewhat uninspired.

Surprising, that, because Mitchell is one of the most inventive novelists in English today. Maybe it's because he spent several years in a foreign land, but his books read more like translations of one of those fabulously creative and playful foreign language writers -- the great Italo Calvino may be the closest resemblance.

So it's with great delight that I write of his latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, that David Mitchell is back with a bang. Literally in some senses, because this is a story of explosions -- actual military ones, and metaphorical social ones. A literary novel that reads like a thriller, it propels the reader through a rattling good tale of romance and horror and bravery and madness, but remembers to stop and pick many flowered jewels of language along the way.

The book begins in 1799, on the man-made island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki in Japan. A young clerk, the titular Jacob, arrives at the Dutch trading post wherein his countrymen have kept an uneasy alliance with the natives for two centuries. Japan is closed off from the world, wilfully isolated: in an attempt to preserve cultural purity, nobody is allowed in or out, Christianity is punishable by death, a minimum of trade carried on with one European partner.

But the times they are a-changing: the British have eyes on this glittering Asian prize, the natives are getting restless and the Dutch greedier, and Jacob's heart is stolen by Orito, a young Japanese midwife of flawed beauty and sublime character. The story follows the seismic developments of the next few years, both political and personal, as Japan's walls of isolation begin to crumble and Jacob's inamorata is whisked away by a bizarre, wicked cult, leaving him bereft and alone, but not without hope.

Jacob is a wonderful character, a stoical, decent-minded man, whose moral courage and refusal to compromise land him in deep trouble, but ultimately prove his salvation. Indeed all the characters in The Thousand Autumns (the title refers to one of many alternative names for Japan) are vividly drawn, complex and wholly believable.

There are echoes throughout of Cloud Atlas, particularly in what I took to be the novel's overarching theme: though society has changed greatly since then, some human traits are eternal, for good and bad (there's also a nice, knowing reference to a skyscape looking like an "atlas of clouds").

There is violence, lust, avarice, pig-headed idiocy -- we remain bound to our baser instincts. But there is fierce beauty here, too, and love and grace and the magical potential of language. Mitchell writes with an uncommon exuberance, truly a man in love with words. They just seem to flow out of him and onto the page, a waterfall of unusual and colourful imagery, crackling dialogue and deep perception.

One lovely line reads: "Orito pictures the human mind as a loom that weaves disparate threads of belief, memory and narrative into an entity whose common name is Self."

It could equally sum up the brilliant career of David Mitchell and his superb new novel.

Irish Independent

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