Creative and Moving Historical Fiction with a Difference

This is my review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.

The gruesome opening chapter ends on a positive note, which indicates the tone of the novel as a whole. After only a few pages, I felt in the hands of a skilled storyteller. The plot is unusual for western readers: the intrigue and plotting between often corrupt members of the Dutch East India Company, and the world of Imperial Japan at the dawn of the C19 – a land so enclosed that the traders have to operate from an artificial island in the harbour of Nagasaki – a touch of bitter irony here when you consider the fate of that city as the recipient of an American atomic bomb.

I enjoyed the deft plotting, varied cast of characters and originality of the first section. When the plot moves on to focus on the claustrophobic world of an enclosed Japanese shrine, it becomes more of a traditional escape thriller, and a bit "over the top" at times. However, the frequent twists are often the reverse of what one would expect, and eventually the threads all tie together to give a satisfying ending, with deeper food for thought about the different values of the two main cultures involved – European versus Japanese – the importance of "honour" or integrity and nature of personal happiness.

Mitchell seems to have an impressive knowledge of Japanese history and language. I like his style, in particular the interweaving of dialogue, the inner thoughts of the speakers, and descriptions. There are some poetic passages, as good as Dylan Thomas's "Under Milkwood", but it never becomes heavy or pretentious.

At various points I was also reminded of Wilkie Collins, Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn), Somerset Maugham's tales of the far east, Umberto Eco (Name of the Rose) or Patrick White's sea stories (but this is more digestible than the last-named).

Apart from being well-written, I found this an exciting page turner which I wanted to finish – better to my mind (although less original) than "Cloud Atlas" because of the sustained and complex plotting, the humour, and the fact that one comes to care about the characters – tension is increased by the fact Mitchell is clearly prepared to kill them off ruthlessly it it serves the plot.

My only tiny criticisms are that I am not sure the twee sketches add much and some sentences in foreign languages e.g. Latin tags are not translated, which is frustrating.

Overall, I now understand the hype surrounding David Mitchell, and this would have made a deserving winner of the Booker…..

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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