The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
At first glance, the setting of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet appears so random it might have been chosen to fulfill the terms of a bet. The place is Dejima, a tiny manmade island in the bay of Nagasaki. In the era of the Napoleonic Wars, this outpost was the property of the Dutch East India Company and the only point of contact between Japan and the Western world. David Mitchell has a reputation for a globe-galloping scope, but it’s a really confined, claustrophobic environment—with all its dramatic potential—that puts ink in his pen. Dejima, all 11,000 square yards of it, makes perfect sense for him.
Lowly Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet arrives on the island in search of the money he needs to make a respectable marriage. Instead of wealth, he finds intrigue, and his determination to stay honest casts him on choppy seas. Rejected by his fellow Westerners as a company snoop, Jacob falls for a scarred Japanese midwife, Orito. That’s the first 150 pages or so and, thus far, the depth of vivid descriptive detail is astonishing. Mitchell fleshes out Dejima’s residents with a satisfying variety of scars and warts. But then comes the change of gear. Autumns isn’t a collection of brilliant shorts, like the putative novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, but it’s still more of a trilogy in one volume than a unified whole. A third of the way in, Orito falls foul of the wicked Abbot Enomoto, and it is her story that is narrated for the next 150 pages. Enomoto imprisons her among a sisterhood of disfigured women, isolated from the world in accordance with ancient tradition. There is a daring escape; there is magic. Hey presto: we’re in sword and sorcery territory. You think there’s nothing wrong with that? Let’s not be inverted snobs about it: Mitchell could do better.
The novel’s last third reverts to Dejima and Jacob. Developments in distant Europe throw him a new challenge in the shape of a British frigate. More derring-do follows, but the real-world exigencies have a bracing effect on the storytelling absent from the fantastical middle section.
Autumns is borne aloft throughout by the robustness of Mitchell’s imagination and his way with dialogue and concise, evocative expression. But for all the virtuosity, the novel only whets the appetite. Mitchell is ambitious, after a fashion, but Autumns isn’t about the questions of our age. Nor is it a writer’s fevered grasp for the kernel of existence. The challenges the author has set himself are technical, and he has exercised tremendous powers in the creation of something that is, in the final analysis, a masterful adventure story. It’s not historical fiction, but historical romance—a literary diversion.
The book’s coda is a taste of what could have been. These last five pages ring with the kind of heartbreaking honesty found in the denouement to a richer novel. That fictional eidolon can be glimpsed momentarily at several points in Autumns when the plot’s dazzle lets up and the characters can shine.
Reviewers are apt to compare Mitchell’s books to puzzles, and there’s a bit too much of the artful brain teaser about this one. It’s highly compelling, ingeniously crafted, and, once completed, oddly forgettable.