"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is the fifth novel by acclaimed writer David Mitchell. It is unlike his previous four, but then, each of them was unlike the others. Two of those novels were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the others have won various prizes.
Mitchell, who's been called a genius, has written what has been called postmodernist and experimental fiction. Such descriptions may attract some readers but turn off others.
While his new novel has some elements of metafiction, forget all that. This one will capture most readers from the get-go and hold their attention until the end, which comes, even after nearly 500 pages, too soon.
The story begins in 1799 on an artificial island called Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, which is the only port linking the Japanese Empire to the wider world. Japan, "the land of a thousand autumns," does not welcome much contact with Westerners.
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However, a dozen or so foreigners employed by the Dutch East Indies Company are allowed to live and work on this prison-like island. Mitchell introduces a cast of characters right out of Dickens, including the conniving Daniel Sitker, Chief Unico Vorstenbosch, Deputy Melchior van Cleef, the Prussian Peter Fischer, the Irishman Con Twomey, the sly trader Arie Grote and the eponymous Jacob de Zoet, a devout and conscientious clerk who hopes to spend his five years away from Holland earning a fortune so that he can return home and marry his wealthy fiancee.
Then Jacob meets Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and a midwife to the city's powerful magistrate. She and several Japanese men are studying medicine under the tutelage of Dr. Maeno, an irreligious humanist from Holland who loves learning and becomes friends with Jacob.
Jacob finds himself attracted to Orito and eventually talks with Ogawa, one of the interpreters, about her. His desire leads him to make a promise, which he later breaks, and the consequences are worse than he can imagine.
Mitchell is an outstanding storyteller. At one point, a character gives a clue to his success (one of the places where the author winks, letting the reader know he knows this is a story): "A story must move ... and misfortune is motion. Contentment is inertia."
Mitchell keeps his story moving with misfortune, and times of contentment are few and far between. He has Dickens' gifts but without the melodrama.
He also includes stories within stories, as many of his characters relate events from their past. One says (another wink to the reader): "You'd think these coincidences'd not happen, not off the stage, not in life."
Another gift Mitchell has in abundance is his gorgeous writing. He punctuates scenes with short, poetic observations. Here are a few: "The pain is prismatic." "The yeasty moon." "Cicadas ... sound like fat frying in a shallow pan." "Jacob finds an island chain of mosquito bites across his hand." "The clock's pendulum scrapes at time like a sexton's shovel."
The vast amount of detail in the novel shows the enormous research Mitchell did. He spent four years in Holland and Japan writing it.
"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" will hold readers in its grip with its powerful storytelling. It is a wonderful book by an outstanding writer. What prevents it from being great is that it does not address larger themes. Still, that may come. I look forward to more from this linguistic virtuoso.
"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell (Random House, 479 pages, $26)