Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

"Miss Kawasemi?"
Opening to
The Thousand Autumns
of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
One benefit of deciding not to become a novelist is that I didn't have to try writing a novel after having written Cloud Atlas.  Some people love David Mitchell's novel with an adoration probably greater than the work deserves while others remain lukewarm to it at best, but only David Mitchell had to write another novel after having written it.  Better him than me.

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.


Peter S. said...

Now I'm really curious about Cloud Atlas.

Jackie Bailey said...

I wish I'd written everything that Mitchell has produced too. He is so talented. I was lucky enough to meet him last year and became totally star struck. He is the only author to have turned me into a gibbering wreck. Shame because he must think I'm an idiot and I really wanted to have a good conversation with him. :-(

Sandy Nawrot said...

Madcap! I love it. You always come up with these phrases that I then have to use because I forgot how fun they are. Anyway, this book. I bought a rather lovely hardback copy of it at a Borders close-out sale. I want madcap, but I'm scared that I won't make it through the meandering part. But I will try.

C.B. James said...

Peter, You still have a couple of months to read it before the movie comes out. The movies looks very good.

Jackie, That's one reason why I'm very shy to meet author's I admire.

Sandy, In all honesty, there were points in the first section when I considered giving up, but almost as soon as they occurred Mitchell did something that kept me reading.

Trish said...

We read Cloud Atlas as a readalong last year and I wanted to love it so badly...but I just couldn't. I've considered listening to the audio before the movie comes out as I think hearing some of the tougher sections might help my foggy brain digest it a little better.

But I'm not really familiar with anything else Mitchell has written. Definitely haven't heard of this one (would have to google the title of the other one I'm thinking of). But I *love* having the rug pulled out from under me. I crave it in reading and wish that I encountered more books that did that. Will keep it on my radar...

Anonymous said...

Actually, Mitchell published Black Swan Green between Cloud Atlas and Jacob de Zoet. And Black Swan Green is completely different from both of those books.

I have such a literary crush on David Mitchell.

Karen K. said...

This is intriguing, if nothing else because of the cover. I think I may put this on the list for my library's book group next year. I love having the power to make people read what I want! (Sadly, it is the only power I have. Wish it was a real superpower).

Sam Sattler said...

What a great review...makes me want to run right out and grab a copy of the book.

Jeanne said...

Your review makes me want to reread this one. The pace did pick up all right, but madcap? Maybe (uncharacteristically) I was reading too earnestly. I hate to miss any vestige of humor and I think you're right that there's a hint of it-- maybe more than a hint.