I’ve read everything by this author (except The Bone Clocks, which is on my list), and so I knew that I would have to have my wits about me with this most ambitious work. (I’m still trying to come to terms with all the intricacies of Cloud Atlas, a most epic piece of writing, which I have read twice and will probably read again at some point.)
The setting for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is Japan, which is a place Mitchell goes back to time and time again, having lived there with his Japanese wife before eventually settling in Ireland. This time we are sailing into Nagasaki harbour to rendezvous at Dejima, a small trading post. We arrive on a Dutch ship at the end of the 18th century. International trade between Japan and the rest of the world is limited.
Our understated protagonist, Jacob de Zoet, is an honest man, a trader employed by the Dutch East India Company who is given the task of validating the accounts concerning the merchandising of goods in Dejima. He soon finds himself amongst liars and thieves, eager to influence him in any way they can. At first, de Zoet seems naïve, but he bides his time and does not stumble into the traps that are set for him.
Love is a central theme, too. Realism is the order of the day, but romance often bubbles up to inspire us. Jacob talks about a girl he has left behind, and obsesses about a midwife he meets in Dejima during a hilarious set-to with a chimpanzee called William Pitt.
The plot is intricate, the characters many and complex – far more than seems necessary at first. But, please, persevere – it’s worth it! Mitchell involves every level of society, with a Shakespearean eye for detail. The dialogue is ubiquitous and complicatedly Pinteresque, peppered with asides and minute observations that give an immediate sense of place or emotional insight. There is horror, murder, betrayal and double-dealing. There is humour when you least expect it, often in the form of farce and, more often than not, involving William Pitt, who is there at the beginning and still around at the end of this epic adventure.
When I came to the final pages, I’ll admit that I thrilled at the idea of a momentous conclusion. Time slowed as I devoured each word, not wanting my enjoyment to end, imagining scenarios that I suspected were too cliched for a Mitchell masterpiece. What happens? Ah, you wouldn’t want me to tell you, would you? Suffice to say, if you love literary genius, you won’t be disappointed.