Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell's newest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is 479 pages long... By page 443 I was starting to panic because I realized I was nearing the end. By page 465, I was literally sweating, the sense of loss leaving me feeling hollow. And then came the end--page 479. It's not so much that the novel's ending itself was so explosive; instead I felt mournful about having to leave the world that Mitchell had created so vividly, so intensely, and re-enter my own mundane reality.

Mitchell is the author of several other spectacular novels including Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas, all of which are crafted with especially distinctive flavors and varied writing styles. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell introduces us to a real, but little-known, place in Shogunal Japan called Dejima. Dejima is a man-made island, specifically constructed for the employees of the Dutch East Indies Company to live and work on, allowing Japan a small, seemingly well-guarded window into the outside world at a time when the country was almost completely closed to foreigners.

In 1799, an earnest young clerk, named (you guessed it!) Jacob de Zoet, arrives at Dejima in order to clean up the account books and expose the rampant corruption that plagues the company's outpost. Jacob, smart yet naive, must contend with an intriguing cast of characters, including deceitful Japanese translators, jealous clerks, corrupt chiefs, a wily cook, a lazy slave, and one very grumpy doctor, as he finds his way in an unfamiliar world. Paralleling (and intersecting) his story is that of Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor who acts as midwife to the city's powerful magistrate.

The novel is rich with characters, dialogue and atmosphere, the plot tight and intriguing. Mitchell is a master of his craft; this is undeniable. He has yet to let me down, and I'll count down the days, like the remaining pages of a good novel, until his next endeavor.

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