Dejima was a small artificial island just off the coast of Japan, near Nagasaki. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the Eastern outpost of the Dutch East India Company, the only Europeans that the Japanese would trade with. It is also the setting of David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
David Mitchell has been on my long list of authors to try for years, probably since the publication of Cloud Atlas. This novel, which I won through LibraryThing’s Early Review program, is the first of his books that I’ve read, and what a book it is! The setting, a tiny bit of Europe adjacent to one of the most insular of all Eastern nations, cannot help but provide wonderful material as the characters must find ways to communicate with and understand one another while retaining their commitment to their own nations and beliefs.
At the center of the story is Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who has come to Dejima to make his fortune so he can get married. I loved Jacob almost from the start. He’s extremely clever and highly principled, but human enough to worry about the effects of his actions. Jacob faces plenty of moral dilemmas as he works to reorganize the Dutch East India Company’s records after years of corrupt management, but Jacob is too good a man to take the easy way out and give in to the dishonest practices of many of his compatriots. He’s not perfect, however; he struggles with his attraction for the midwife Orito Aibagawa and ends up making a decision that has dire consequences for Orito.
I was impressed with the way Mitchell handles the cultural conflicts inherent in the historical setting. This is no pure East vs. West story, with one culture held up as the one that is truly enlightened and the other as barbaric. Both the Dutch and the Japanese cultures are depicted as having something to offer, as well as an unfortunate shadow side. Some individuals, of course, are further in the shadows than others, but Mitchell does a nice job of giving both cultures (as well as the English who appear later) their fair share of heroes and villains and some people who fall in between.
Besides having a fascinating historical setting, The Thousand Autumns also offers an exciting story. There are dodgy business dealings, shocking occult practices, a daring escape and equally daring rescue, a sea battle, political wheeling and dealing, and more. A few sequences left me breathless with shock, particularly in the second part of the book, which focuses on Orito’s life at a bizarre shrine in the mountains. And then there are some wonderful digressions, such as when the men who serve with Jacob explain how they ended up with the Dutch East India Company. Some of those characters’ histories could easily have been expanded into full novella-length stories of their own, but then the book would have swollen to a ridiculous size.
The novel is divided into sections, each of which follows from what came before but has a different enough focus and storyline that some readers may end up finding the book to be uneven. I, however, enjoyed all of the different sections. It did sometimes take me a chapter to two to get fully immersed in a new section, but once I had made the transition, I was hooked.
In some ways, this book reminded me of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, a book that I ended up loving despite taking a while to warm up to. I found The Thousand Autumns to be nearly as rich and complex but requiring slightly less focused concentration. Mitchell does not engage in quite as much linguistic play (although he doesn’t eschew it entirely), and Mitchell’s characters are more closely connected to one another early in the story and only spin off into their own tales later in the book. So in that sense, Mitchell’s book is perhaps more accessible than Ghosh’s although I imagine fans of one are likely to enjoy the other.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has already been published in the UK, but it won’t be released in the US until June 29. It’s a book to look forward to, and I look forward to reading more Mitchell in the future.