THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET by David Mitchell

Book Quote:

“Over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night’s rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn (JUN 30, 2010)

This is a modern, woolly mastodon of a book, a book with tusks and chewing teeth, a throwback to the most towering storytelling in literary history. But it is also a Seraph, a three-paired-winged novel that is full of zeal and respect, humility and ethereal beauty, an airborne creature that gave me five days in heaven. And, it is a sea serpent, because it lifted itself up like a column and it grabbed and swallowed me. Whole.

Pardon me while I gush; I bow to the spirit and heartbeat of David Mitchell, a force of nature who wrote this unforgettable, epic tale of adventure and colossal love. It is really…all about life and love. At turns knotty, briny, ribald, sensuous, fearsome, biting, daring, cerebral, grandiose, infinitesimal, and what did I leave out? It’s panoptic, and exquisitely poetic. The first page-and-a-half of chapter XXXIX rivals Shelley’s Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. It will make you laugh, it will make you weep, it will make your soul utter its secrets.

The novel starts with a birth, ends with a death, like bookends to all it contains. It contains two calendars, the Gregorian and the lunar. Time is an expanding and contracting entity in this story. In the strictest and most Western sense, it is linear. But when you are addressing a more Eastern orientation, as well as gestation and birth, the lunar calendar is more fitting. Mitchell makes them work, hand in hand, in alternating chapters.

The eponymous Jacob de Zoet, the Dutch Zeelander and clerk, is the strong and very moral center of this novel. Copper-haired and green-eyed, robust but reserved, he is a devout, sensitive, patient, tolerant, artistic, and keenly intelligent young man. He is sometimes troubled, and often prescient. He is posted indefinitely on the fan-shaped, artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki with the Dutch East India Company’s warehouses and stock and motley crew, and the year is 1799.

At first sight, Jacob falls in love with Orito Aiwabaga, midwife and student to the scholarly Dr. Marinus. A burn scar on the left side of her face is no impediment to her beauty in the eyes of Jacob; his principled nature is his obstruction. I inhabited his quiet torment and pleaded with the pages to bring them together. I fell a little in love with Jacob myself–he transcended the fictional; I felt his hands.

Drawing on historical facts but twisting it into a magnificent, almost mythical tale, Mitchell casts a spell with words and images. His juxtapositions are painterly; the narrative is colorful with stylistic and linguistic leaps that keep you on your toes. This is a demanding novel. Mitchell stays one step ahead of the reader (but not arrogantly so), and he does it with brio. It is as if he is aware of what he needs to do to take you to the fathomless waters of his prose. He starts off with these tongue-slicing, lip-curling crazy names that may frustrate you initially, but it makes you slow…down…and pay attention to the minute details as well as the grand canvas.

I have rarely read a book (in third person point of view) that makes me feel so intimate with the author’s artistic strokes. It was as if he made a contract to take our senses, gradually tune us to his rhythms, and descend further and deeper. With not one stitch of self-consciousness, he envelopes you. And there are lovely sketches in the book that add dimension to the narrative.(I wish I knew who the artist was–is it Mitchell? His wife?)

There are three major shifts in the book. The first part sets up the tension and gives you the flow and rhythm and landscape of the novel, and introduces the Dutch and Japanese equipoise of politics that teeter-totters in this faraway place. The hierarchy of administrators, leaders, shoguns, samurais, medical practitioners, merchants, interpreters, servants, and slaves encompasses the serious to the sensational, and is often comically ingenious. This is also where I was most a tenant of Jacob.

The middle section focuses more on Orito, and has a feminine spirit to it, as well as cautiously moving into a thriller mode. And just when you think you got ahead of the author, he wrests that predictability away and keeps his promise to elevate his purpose.

The third section is the most challenging to read. It begins baldly but ambiguously, with a nautical saltiness that throws you off, and a gouty Captain with a morality of uncertain definition. You know where you are, but not why you are there and how it relates to the story and themes. The language is frequently idiomatic and the circumstances initially unclear. But, Mitchell doesn’t let you down. Everything gradually connects without artificial means. And the Captain’s closing thoughts stole my breath away.

This is as close to perfect as a novel can be. (You know there will be a movie–it is beautifully cinematic without being conventional.) You will close the pages, exalted. Jacob de Zoet and Orito Aibagawa will be eternally seared in your consciousness, and this story forever in your heart. A++

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 190 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (June 29, 2010)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: David Mitchell
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Cloud Atlas

Another MF review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Bibliography:


June 30, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Commonwealth Prize, Facing History, Japan, Literary, y Award Winning Author

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