If you’ve got some time to spare – for example a few days in hospital, or you’re stuck in a wooden shack on the edge of the Arctic waiting for the ice to melt – I can recommend David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It’ll fill in the time quite nicely.
Both Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green have seen their pages fluttering past my open eyelids; of the two I prefer Black Swan Green, and not just for its paradoxical title. There is a sense of the real and relevant about the setting and characters, for me. Cloud Atlas has some excellent, fantastic sections, but the overall device of (is it six?) interwoven stories repeating in the second half of the novel is too much of a constraint on the author, and it fades away.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet fits between the two previous. There is the ambition of Cloud Atlas – definitely to be applauded. The scope is vast and historical, and Mitchell invites us to look at Japan during its period of isolation from the rest of the world with a sense of wonder at the detail used to describe this strange and closed environment. Jacob himself, in the opening section, is an interesting character – naive and idealistic, he smuggles a copy of the psalms into Japan; a translator becomes implicated. De Zoet becomes fascinated – obsessed – with a young Japanese girl; possibly as a consequence, and partly due to the corrupt regime of the shogun Enomoto, she is shipped off to a nunnery on the mountainside. Remember The Handmaid’s Tale? This section of the novel has strong echoes of Atwood’s novel.
Set in the Dutch colony of Dejima, on the bay of Nagasaki, the opening section is the most convincing. Later there are dramatic sections where we share Orito’s fear and pain, and a series of adventures. The arrival of the British, seen from the perspective of this Irish author, adds an interesting dimension. The history is fascinating: see Samurai William by Giles Milton for a non-fiction perspective.
It’s wrong to ask a writer to write a different novel than the one they did. I enjoyed this book. It was a collection of parts – de Zoet, Orito, Ogawa, Penhaligon, Shiroyama. Each is interesting and they carry the narrative well, but I would have preferred it to be a more cohesive whole.