The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Was there ever any doubt, really?
What can I say about this book that I haven’t already said? I first wrote about it after I finished it just over a year ago and again the week it was published. (Yes, I’m including it on this list because its publication date was June 2010, even though I read it in late 2009. Get over it.) I also wrote about it on the Warwick’s blog for “Are You Seth, vol.10” and again on the Catapult when Mitchell was snubbed by the Booker Prize committee in September. And there was “Booker Be Damned, Read David Mitchell!” that I wrote for KPBS’s Culture Lust blog in October. So the #1 status should come as no surprise if you’ve been paying attention.
I was fortunate enough to meet the man himself at a booksigning in July at Skylight Books in L.A. where he confessed that he had read what I wrote about the book back in December 2009 on this site. (I nearly died.) When I went up to the signing table clutching my (rare) bound manuscript of Thousand Autumns, I mentioned that I worked for an indie bookstore in San Diego and he said, “Um, didn’t you write a review back in December, perhaps, where you said something like, ‘Holy shit, what a book?'” Yep, that was me! He actually went on to thank me for writing such a positive early review (if it can be called that – it was awfully brief), as it made him feel like he had created something of worth – up until that point, all the readers were either relatives or publishing people. So I’ve got that going for me.
I won’t get into too much of the plot of Thousand Autumns here, as you can read one of my other ten thousand pieces for that. In a nutshell, it’s set in the year 1799 on the manmade island of Dejima, in the middle of Nagasaki harbor in Japan. The Dutch are the only Westerners allowed to trade with the isolationist Shogunate, but they are banned from actually setting foot on Japanese soil, hence the manufactured island. Jacob de Zoet is a low-level clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company who has traveled to Dejima to make his fortune and return to marry his ladyfriend within the next five years. (A 19th-century 5-year plan, if you will.) As fate will have it, Jacob falls in (unrequited) love with a local midwife almost immediately and remains quite conflicted, both in matters of the heart and of his faith for the duration. Soon after, this Miss Aibagawa disappears under mysterious circumstances and Jacob must do all he can to break through the significant linguistic and cultural barriers uncover the truth and save the woman he loves.
What Jacob feels for Orito Aibagawa is ultimately the driving force to the whole novel. Here, he is tending to his garden when Orito approaches him after her schooling session with Dr. Marinus, the Dutch doctor:
She askes, “Why does Mr. Dazuto work today as Dejima gardener?”
“Because,” the pastor’s nephew lies through his teeth, “I enjoy a garden’s company. As a boy,” he leavens his lie with some truth, “I worked in a relative’s orchard. We cultivated the first plum trees ever to grow in our village.”
“In the village of Domburg,” she says, “in province of Zeeland.”
“You are most kind to remember.” Jacob breaks off a half dozen young sprigs. “Here you are.” For a priceless coin of time, their hands are linked by a few inches of fragrant herb, witnessed by a dozen bloodorange sunflowers.
I don’t want a purchased courtesan, he thinks. I wish to earn you.
**Warning: this is about where this post turns into a bit of a David Mitchell Nerd-fan Showcase. Sorry.** Mitchell’s previous novels – especially the Booker-shortlisted Cloud Atlas and his debut, Ghostwritten – have amazingly intricate labyrinthine plots, multiple timelines, and a myriad of characters whose stories all intermesh and flow around each other in a narrative dance unlike anything I have read before or since. In comparison, Thousand Autumns seems rather straightforward and linear, although populated by a staggering number of characters. For the bookseller in me, it has proven easier to sell this book, actually, by referring to its “historical fiction” structure. (When you have a 70-year old lady say, “Oh, I love historical fiction set in Japan!” when you’re talking to her about a David Mitchell novel… there’s something different there.) But, after meeting him and hearing him discuss his work this past summer, I have a renewed appreciation for the bottomless depths of his books, the connections – both seen and unseen – between them and can see the role that Thousand Autumns has an integral cog in the machine that is his collected work.
At his signing in Los Angeles, he referred to all of his books as “sort of chapters in an übernovel or a hypernovel” and mentioned the presence of “hyperlinks” between books in the guise of recurring characters. This sort of talk makes people like me crap their pants. The very idea that he is crafting one giant, career-long novel… Schwing! I would strongly recommend listening to the entire podcast of Mitchell’s event at Skylight books – it was really one of the best author events I have ever witnessed, and not just because I’m a nerd fan. To hear the author himself reading the opening to Chapter 39 should convince you enough – although, if you’ve gotten to this point in this review without wanting to read Thousand Autumns, there’s something wrong with you.
There is no author on the planet that I have yet read that can craft a better, more beautiful, eloquent, & powerful sentence than David Mitchell. He is an innovative, clever, witty, and wholly original storyteller, which is why I believe that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell was the best book of 2010.