Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Activity in the Phoebus’s gun ports promises another round.
If I don’t keep talking, Jacob realises, I shall crack like a dropped dish.
‘I know what you don’t believe in, Doctor: what do you believe?’
‘Oh, Descartes’ methodology, Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, the efficacy of Jesuits’ bark… so little is actually worthy of belief or disbelief. Better to strive to co-exist, than seek to disprove…’
Clouds spill over the mountain ridges.

I am notoriously bad at keeping promises to myself. Like when I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or Grant Miller’s Final Crisis comics, and I promise myself the next thing I’ll do is to read everything else these authors have ever written… and then get hooked on someone new and forget all about the old.

David Mitchell is the exemption to this rule.

If you haven’t heard of David Mitchell before, or you have but you’ve been twiddling your thumbs, looking dumbfounded by the immensity of choice in your local bookshop’s fiction section, then it’s time for you to make a change.

Mitchell is a multiple award winning, best-selling fantasy come sci-fi come historic fic writer, and an all round excellent human being.

I had the pleasure of catching him at EIBF last year and chewing his ear off as he signed proof copies for me and my maw (bookseller privileges, yo). And no, I will not relinquish my bragging rights.

His writing is so engaging, so endlessly fantastical, so heart-thumpingly nuanced and gripping, that I’ve read more of Mitchell than I have of any other of my favourite authors.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the latest addition to my repertoire. Unlike every other Mitchell I’ve read, Thousand Autumns is confined to one timeline, and to one location: the final years of the 18th century, on Dejima – the land-made island just off the coast of Nagasaki, and the trading post for the Dutch East Indies company (one of only two national companies permitted trading rights with Japan at this time).

The setting itself was right up my street: enabling a plot filled with drunken sailors, samurai overlords, and the clash of these two historically interlinked and antagonistic cultures.

Mitchell writes with an impeccable  understanding of history – no doubt gained through unyielding dedication to research – which helps to create a fully immersive world, accurate and described with his signature poetic voice.

The rarefied sunset turns the snow-veined Bare Peak a bloodied fish pink and the evening star is as sharp as a needle.

Whilst I raced through the book faster than I ever usually do with chunky tomes like this, I couldn’t help but be stopped in my tracks from time to time when I came to lines such as the above. The imagery Mitchell employs at times truly beggars belief (and it can be found on every page).

One of my favourite characteristics of Mitchell’s writing can be found in Thousand Autumns too: his use of multiple narratives. As if it needed it, this technique keeps the story fresh at all times, and provides us the sort of depth to our empathy for his characters required to really become them in our imaginations.

As I like to discuss in most of my book reviews, I am thankful that with Thousand Autumns I can confidently assert the strength of Mitchell’s female characters too. Made even more impressive by his strict adherence to contemporary cultural standards. By this I mean that his female characters cannot by any means, given the setting, act independent of the patriarchy; as we might hope to see of characters in the modern world (though of course we must ask whether any of us can truly act independent of patriarchy).

Nevertheless, this does not mean that his women cannot be kick-ass or revolutionary in their own right.

In fact, and I apologise if I’m confusing the matter, need female characters be revolutionary to be strong? I’d say that whilst it’s nice to see, the answer is no. Probably this is just my male projection of hopes and expectations.

What makes Mitchell’s female characters strong – like semi-protagonist Orito (based on Japan’s first female medical academic), or Otane the subversive herbalist – is that he gives them their own voice, independent of the male voice; even in spite of the romantic themes running throughout the book. These women have their own narratives, full of all the complexities life as a women in 18th century Japan must have entailed.

At the all-female commune on Mt Shiranui, for example, none of the women are defined by either patriarchal perceptions or male-feminist bias. Some of the women are rebels against their male oppressors, some passive participators, some agents of the system. Each for their own reasons, which we get to hear directly from them.

These are but a few of the reasons behind my love for the way Mitchell writes women: adding tenfold to my overall enjoyment of the book.

One last observation before I sign off. For those of you who have read David Mitchell’s books before – especially Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House – you’ll know what I mean when I say that the universe in which those books exist, is part of me. I cannot, with words, desribe accurately my affection for the expansive, magical, fantastical universe of Time and Morality manipulation, of Good versus Evil (or of Evil? versus Good?).

Working at the bookshop back home, when I recommend Mitchell to customers, it’s his creation of this universe that I always sell them on.

Well, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is no exception. I don’t want to say too much, because people who spout spoilers will be the first up against the wall when the revolution comes, but let’s just say – despite being written before any of the above mentioned books – there are just enough juicy, delicious name drops (*cough* Marinus *cough*) and subtle references (*cough* Anchorites *cough*) to feed your appetite and still leave you suitably hungry for round two.

All in all, Thousand Autumns is a wonderful story: of love, of politics, of war, of the human consciousness (and conscience). It would be a sterling place to start if you’ve never read any of David Mitchell’s books before, and will entertain you to no end if you’re already a fan. The last paragraph sent shivers all over my body each time I read it (which was at least five times).

Maybe my favourite book of the trip so far. Read. This. Now.

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