BOOK REVIEW: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell, Sceptre)

David Mitchell’s much-anticipated new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, returns to Japan, but unlike the ultra-modern settings of Ghostwritten and number9dream, or the futuristic Japan of Cloud Atlas, this time Mitchell travels back in time, to the floating island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay in the years 1799 and 1800 (for the most part, although it does travel several decades further on in the latter stages of the novel). Dejima is a heavily regulated trading post for the Dutch East India Company and the only point of European contact for a highly insular Japan. The novel opens with the arrival of the clerk Jacob de Zoet at Dejima, along with a new chief resident, Unico Vorstenbosch, who appears intent on wiping out the corruption in the trading factory, starting with the imprisonment of the outgoing chief, Daniel Snitker. Jacob is a morally upright man who is nevertheless astute enough to understand the risks of aligning himself with the new chief and against the existing workers who stand to lose a lot of their sideline income. Jacob also gets offside with the resident surgeon, Dr Lucas Marinus, an enlightened intellectual who has made strong bonds with some of the local Japanese. The key Japanese characters include Orito Aibagawa, a young midwife who has received a dispensation to train under Dr Marinus; Ogawa Uzaemon, a translator; Lord Abbot Enomoto; and Magistrate Shiroyama.

As with his earlier novels, Mitchell gives The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet an episodic structure. The first section, ‘The Bride For Whom We Dance’, is (apart from Jacob falling inconveniently in love with the scarred Orito) essentially a tale of corporate corruption, backstabbing and politics, as Jacob tussles with the Prussian Peter Fischer, his rival for the position of head clerk and Deputy Chief Melchior Van Cleef, and starts to become disillusioned with his mentor Vortsenbosch. The second section, ‘A Mountain Fastness’, largely leaves Jacob and Dejima behind as the bizarre nature of Lord Enomoto’s Mount Shiranui Shrine emerges. The pace shifts to that of a tense thriller as the newest sister at the shrine plots her escape and gradually discovers the horrifying truth of her role there. Meanwhile, the translator Ogawa Uzaemon comes into possession of a scroll that also reveals what happens at the shrine and musters a team of samurai for a raid.

The third and final section, ‘The Master of Go’, shifts back to Nagasaki Harbour, where the Royal Navy ship the HMS Phoebus has entered under a Dutch flag, intending to raid any Dutch East Indies ships they find docked there. The focal character here becomes Captain Penhaligon, who is wracked by gout as well as doubts over his future. Mitchell has based this section on a real incident involving the frigate HMS Phaeton, bringing it forward from 1808 to 1800. Remarkably, Jacob de Zoet remains the emotional centre of the novel, even though he is absent from the novel for large chunks of the last two sections.

There was a point during the second section that I felt I was enjoying this novel as much as Mitchell’s previous ones; however, the escape sequence felt forced to me and the revelations about the shrine too contrived—as conversations were fortuitously overheard and letters discovered. By the end of the novel, though, I was totally won over, and the second section felt like a necessary part of the journey that got me to that point.

The novels that come most strongly to mind for comparison are two other historical novels about East/West trading interactions: Amitav Ghosh’s recent Sea of Poppies and Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession. For a literary novelist, Mitchell packs a lot of action into his novels, which no doubt contributes to his great popularity. When you combine that with the cross-cultural romance sub-plot, the meticulously researched historical detail in the novel and the lyrical flights that Michell goes into—particularly in the last section—you end up with a novel that is almost certain to garner Mitchell a third shortlisting for the Man Booker Prize. And perhaps it will be third time lucky.

Blair Mahoney teaches English, Literature and Philosophy at Melbourne High School and is the author of Poetry Reloaded.

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