The Thousand Autumns
of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
How do you top a novel like Cloud Atlas? How do you top six separate stories nesting within each other, covering six separate time periods and six different genres all connected to each other?
Not a problem I had to face.
Mr. Mitchell faces it by going small, selecting one genre, the historical novel, out of the six covered in Cloud Atlas, then writing a story that takes place within a very small world, the closed islands of Japan at the end of the 18th century. He makes his story even smaller still by setting it on a tiny island within the islands, Dejima, an artificial island built on the edge of Nagasaki Harbor by the Japanese to both house and isolate the Dutch traders who came there for the islands plentiful copper supply in the late 18th century. His novel is made smaller in scope again by focusing the story on one man, Jacob de Zoet, a morally upright Dutchman among a horde of amoral schemers out only to benefit themselves.
Mr. Mitchell takes his time, too, several hundred pages of time, to introduce the reader to Jacob de Zoet, to Dejima, and to the other men, Dutch and Japanese, and a handful of women, who populate his novel before he begins to expand his story until he has grown his tale into an epic flirting with the danger of going too far. Ultimately, I don't think he goes too far, but he goes far enough that I began to worry about it.
The time Mr. Mitchell spends introducing his story almost becomes a problem. The pacing is so slow that some readers may begin to think they've fallen into a regency period Madame Butterfly. Will Jacob de Zoet be able to form a bond with Orito, the young Japanese woman he is infatuated with, in spite of their cultural differences? in spite of the laws and customs of their societies neither of which sees the other as worthy of respect as equals? How long will the first act go one before we get to great aria at the end?
Then Mr. Mitchell pulls the rug out from under everything by switching narrators. Then he pulls the rug out from under everything again by taking his story up into the mountains where Orito falls victim to a sinister plot. He keeps pulling the rug out from under his reader again and again until by the end of the book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has strayed far from the subtle, slow-paced romance we thought we had in our hands when we started reading.
It's all a bit mad-cap actually.
I wish I had written it.