Saturday, June 5, 2010

Without exaggeration, the best novel I’ve read in years

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
by David Mitchell

Based on past experience, I came to this latest by David Mitchell with the very highest expectations. He didn't merely exceed them, he shattered them. I didn't know how I could possibly articulate my enthusiasm for this novel, but yesterday, talking to a friend, it all sort flowed right out of me.

This is what I told her: Set in feudal Japan, this is the tale of Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. To make his fortune and win the hand of his love back in the Netherlands, Jacob has agreed to ply his trade in Asia for a period of five years. As the novel opens, he is new to this very foreign land. He's an innocent abroad in a cut-throat environment of corruption and hidden agendas, intrigue and illicit love. Jacob's tale is utterly absorbing--the time, the place, the history, the characters! It is staggering to think of the research that Mitchell must have done to write this. As long and complex as this novel is, it's not truly epic in scope. The vibrant personalities and clashing cultures are shown in meticulous, detailed focus.

I was fascinated by the way Mitchell populated his novel with a largely deplorable cast of characters, yet one-by-one, as back stories were revealed, so too were these characters' humanity in light of the harshness of their lives. I was completely engrossed, at times--literally--turning the pages breathlessly, I was so caught up in the plot! David Mitchell is that rarest of literary novelists whose magnificent language is married to an amazing story-telling ability. And deep into this novel I thought I understood the story being told. I was so wrong.

Nearly 200 pages in, David Mitchell throws in an absolute game changer. And that first is far from the only one. Mitchell's panorama was so much bigger, broader, and, yes, more lurid than I had thought! The man is a master! Honestly, I have barely touched on the substance of this book. I came to it nearly blind, and my pleasure was far greater for it. I could write essays on the characters he's created, the stories told, the unexpected humor within. But for your sake, I will resist.

Reading this novel is an investment. It's not difficult, but there are elements that are challenging. First, it's a toss-up which names are more unpronounceable, the Dutch or the Japanese. I'm going to have to go with the Dutch. Exotic names make keeping track of the cast of thousands that much tougher. Some characters speak in dialect, and one even with a speech impediment! (Thankfully, she isn't too talkative.) On top of that, communication in this time and place was incredibly nuanced and subtle. For most readers, Jacob's world will be alien. So, yes, reading this book is an investment. Do not be deterred! The pay-off is richer than you can imagine. A brief quote:

"Hollows from the fingers of Aibagawa Orito are indented in her ripe gift and he places his own fingers there, holds the fruit under his nostrils, inhales its gritty sweetness, and rolls its rotundity along his cracked lips... Lacking a knife or spoon, he takes a nip of the waxy fruit between his incisors, and tears; juice oozes from the gash; he licks the sweet smears and sucks out a dribbling gobbet of threaded flesh and holds it gently, gently against the roof of his mouth, where the pulp disintegrates into fermented jasmine, oily cinnamon, perfumed melon, melted damson...and in its heart he finds ten or fifteen flat stones, brown as Asian eyes and the same shape."

You owe it to yourself to read this novel, and you owe it to the virtuosic David Mitchell. I am a reader. It is my passion in life. A novel like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a reason to live.
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1 comment:

  1. I LOVE Mitchell's work...and I am dying to read this one. So glad it was everything you expected and more!