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“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell


Previously I hard read three of David Mitchell’s novels, “Cloud Atlas” (which I thought was one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years), “The Bone Clocks” (which I liked many things about but thought had some serious flaws) and “Slade House” (which I thought was an enjoyable haunted house story). The first obvious difference between them and “The Thousands Autumns of Jacob Zoet” is that this story is told in a much more straightforward manner, rather than having often loosely-linked plotlines taking places over a span of decades or centuries this book mostly focuses on the title character and aside from the epilogue takes place within a couple of years around the end of the 18th Century.

The book begins with Jacob de Zoet arriving as the new clerk at the Dutch East India company’s trading outpost of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour, at the time the sole point of contact between the Japanese Empire and the outside world. It’s not a piece of history I knew much about before and Dejima is an intriguing setting, a tiny outpost of Europe in Feudal Japan where every contact between the Dutch merchants and the local population is tightly controlled with the foreigners usually forbidden from leaving the island and where both the Dutch and Japanese are struggling to really understand each other’s cultures. A fair amount of the first part of the book is spent with the inquisitive Jacob trying his best to learn what he can of the local culture. He might be a stranger in Japan but also often feels a stranger among his own countrymen who focus much of their efforts on trying to gain influence in the company and to try to enrich themselves even at their employer’s expense. He feels very much like the Ned Stark of Dejima, an incorruptible man trying to stay true to his principles while surrounded by corruption. However, even Jacob is not without some flaws and despite planning to marry when he returns to the Netherlands he does make some awkward attempts at trying to start a romantic relationship with Orito, a Japanese midwife studying under the Dutch physician Marinus. This part of the book had an interesting setting and some well-developed characters but I felt the plot was fairly slow-moving and the storyline of the new Dejima’s Chief’s attempts to stem corruption wasn’t particularly compelling. However, I thought the plot moved to a new level in the second portion of the story in which Orito is, against her will, made to join a mysterious religious community headed by the enigmatic and powerful Abbot Enomoto.

Whereas the first part of the story was mostly told from Jacob’s perspective the second portion adds perspectives from several Japanese characters. Orito’s attempts to adjust to deal with the shock of her sudden change of circumstance and to understand the horrors of the religious cult who are imprisoning her make for a much more compelling storyline. Equally compelling is the heroic but possibly quixotic attempts of a lovestruck Samurai to try to rescue her from her fate. This part of the story also introduces what may be subtle elements of supernatural fantasy into what had been up until this point seemed to be straightforward historical fiction. The fantasy elements are subtle enough that taken on its own merits it could perhaps be debated whether anything genuinely supernatural happened or whether it was just characters believing in the supernatural, although having read Mitchell’s books out of order I found this part of the story to be quite reminiscent of the more overtly fantastical plotlines in “The Bone Clocks” and “Slade House”, even without considering the fact that the character of Marinus appears in all three books. I felt that this did a much better job of integrating the fantastical elements into the main plot than The Bone Clocks did with a similar plotline, perhaps the only small flaw would be that there’s little hint of this in the first couple of hundred pages of the story. The concluding section of the book introduces another new plotline with a Royal Navy warship confronting Dejima in an attempt to muscle in on the lucrative trade with the Japanese, leading to a surprising but satisfying finale.

I thought Mitchell’s characterisation was excellent in the previous three books I read and it continues to be equally good here. There’s a lot of good character development here and the supporting cast get plenty of attention, I think just about every significant character gets a chance to tell their own story of what brought them to Dejima. All the characters seem to have well-developed motivations and even the best of the characters will have some flaws while even the more villainous of them may have some redeeming features – the British Captain Penhaligon may be an antagonist but he’s probably a better person than most of the other characters in the story. Jacob is a likeable protagonist and I thought Orito and Ogawa were compelling characters among the Japanese cast. Dr Marinus might be the most entertaining of the characters in the story, especially in a couple of genuinely funny scenes where he takes some unusual measures to try to dissuade Jacob from starting a doomed romance with Orito. Abbot Enomoto was a very effective villain, capable of doing some chillingly evil things but always with his own motivations (although he does at one point give a Bond villain speech to a prisoner which felt a bit out of character).

There is some excellent writing here which paints an evocative picture of life in Dejima and Nagasaki in this period. I can’t claim to be able to judge the historical accuracy of it, but it does feel convincing. The prose may be more straightforward than the constant switching between different literary styles in “Cloud Atlas” but I thought it was very effective.

Overall, I thought this was a very good book with some great characters, a fascinating setting and some memorable plotlines, perhaps the only flaw was that the plot was a bit slow to get going at first.

Rating : 9 / 10


“Slade House” by David Mitchell

slade house

Slade House if a difficult place to find, seemingly only accessible by a small black door off an alleyway in a nondescript suburban housing estate. This book tells the story of some of the unlucky people who manage to find the house and encounter its inhabitants.

This short novel is a companion-piece to Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks" which I read last year, unlike that book which mixed a number of different genres this sticks to a single genre, in this case a haunted house story told through the tales of five people who encounter the house and its malevolent inhabitants over the course of four decades. I thought "The Bone Clocks" biggest weakness was that the supernatural fantasy elements of the story felt a bit out-of-place compared to some of the other plotlines and the more mundane plotlines tended to be better. In this book I thought the supernatural elements of the story worked a lot better, probably due to being more integral to the whole story.

It's a fairly short novel but I think it's about the right length, any longer and it might have risked getting repetitive. I think Mitchell's characterisation is one of his strengths and I think it works very well here, he does have a knack for making characters seem interesting and well-rounded in a short space of time.

I think this would work well as a stand-alone but the little references to Mitchell's previous work do add something, particularly in the final section where there's probably a completely different reading experience if you recognise the name of one of the characters.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

cloud atlas

This book is a novel constructed out of six different stories. In the 19th Century a lawyer encounters savagery and civillisation in unexpected places as he sails across the Pacific. In 1930s Belgium a troubled young English musician accepts a job assisting an aging composer. In 1970s California an investigative reporter stumbles across a conspiracy at a nuclear power plant. In the early 21st Century a vanity publisher goes on the run from the relatives of his murderous bestselling author. In the futuristic state of Nea So Corpos an artificially born waitress begins to awaken to the reality of the world around her. In a post-apocalyptic Hawaii a young tribesman warily helps a woman visiting from a more advanced civilisation.

Cloud Atlas is a very ambitious book. Constructing a coherent novel out of six largely unconnected stories would be ambitious by itself, but it’s even more ambitious to have those stories be in different genres (historical fiction, pulp thriller, cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic) and written in six different distinctive writing styles. To have any one of those stories be weak or to have any of them failing to fit in with the others could have brought the entire novel down, and while I don’t think the book is perfect I think all the different stories are at least good and in most cases very good.

At the halfway point of the novel I was a little bit dubious about whether the different stories were fitting together in such a way that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but I think the second half of the novel does a great job of tying them together. Despite being very different in terms of the writing and the plots I think thematically the stories are consistent with each other, although in some of the stories the themes are expressed more subtly than in others. Occasionally the exploration of the themes does feel a little bit heavy-handed, I think in some circumstances it is reasonable to have the characters musing on the themes of the story (it is the sort of thing Adam Ewing might write about in his journal), but occasionally it does feel a bit unsubtle, for example when Isaac Sachs is jotting down notes about the past and future. I think the differences in tone and writing style between the different stories does add something to the overall novel, although Timothy Cavendish’s story is a bit lightweight in comparison to some of the others it is a bit refreshing to have an entertaining caper to contrast with the often tragic events in some of the other stories. Looking at the basic premise of many of the stories it could easily have been a gloomy and pessimistic novel, but although a lot of bad things happen one consistent theme is that as long as some people try to make the world a better place there is still some hope for improvement, the darkest ending to any of the stories comes from the one where the main character in it has given up on hoping for things to get better.

The characterisation is strong throughout the novel, particularly of the six main characters although there are a number of memorable supporting characters as well. Sometimes the characters are not particularly likeable, but I thought they were all very believable characters. Since five of the stories are narrated by their protagonists the different ways in which those stories are written does reflect a lot about what they characters are like and how they choose to describe events can tell us as much about them as the events themselves, for example Adam Ewing’s naïve blindness to what is going on around him, Robert Frobisher’s increasingly troubled letters or the way that Sonmi~451 has realised the power of the very human act of storytelling. I think the universal instinct to tell stories and how the storyteller can shape the story they are telling both consciously and unconsciously is another one of the main themes of the novel.

I thought the most powerful of the stories were probably “Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After” and “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, although the writing might be at its best in “Letters From Zedelghem”. “Half Lives” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” have a bit less depth than some of the others but they are still entertaining. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” supplies a good beginning and ending to the novel. One thing I’m not completely sure about is whether the idea of characters throughout the six stories being in some way reincarnations of each other was just a gimmick or whether it really added anything to the overall novel, I suspect the book wouldn’t have been weakened much if that idea had been taken out.

Overall, I would say this is a very good book. The second half is probably better than the first since the first half does have to go through the lengthy process of introducing six different stories. It sets ambitious goals for itself and I think it probably meets most of them.

Rating : 9 / 10