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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

September 6, 2010

I’ve enjoyed David Mitchel’s previous novels, including trying to spot the linkages between them. This though, is a standalone novel, albeit involving Japan again, round the turn of the 19th century. It’s based mainly on a Dutch held trading post on an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki in a period of history when Japan is fanatically isolated from the outside world and determined to keep it that way.

The writing is beautiful, particularly one description of Nagasaki whose prose literally rhymes. Two set pieces stand out remarkably. I’ve rarely read an opening chapter both gripping and repulsive, depicting the birth of a breeched baby. Its counterpart is a later chapter describing another medical procedure, this time (located in the nethers!), the extraction of a kidney stuff. Gross but brilliant. And the whole novel is magnificently researched and enlightening. One other set-piece was also incredible, the attack by the British frigate—extraordinary. And the ending chapters are beautiful and lyrical.

So why didn’t I absolutely love it? I never quite believed the tangled love story—it just seemed to emerge as a plot device rather than integral to the story. The description of the female lead characters attempted escape from imprisonment had me laughing out loud at the contrived nature of how the plot was revealed. And the samurai attack on the monastery just seemed to fade out.

Mitchell is a terrific, creative, imaginative novelist and this has its peaks but also its troughs. Not as thrilling as Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten.

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