By Gwendolyn Dawson
In 2004, David Mitchell impressed readers and critics alike with Cloud Atlas, his genre-defying (and Booker-Prize-shortlisted) novel with a structure more akin to a set of Russian nesting dolls than a typical novel. In his most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell skips the literary fireworks in favor of the more conventional form of the historical novel. Mitchell’s protagonist — Jacob de Zoet — travels around the world in 1799 to the trading post maintained by the Dutch East Indies Company off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan. The Dutch traders are confined to the man-made island of Dejima, lying just off the coast of Nagasaki and connected to the mainland by a heavily guarded bridge. Seeking to earn enough distinction and money to wed the sweetheart he left behind in the Netherlands, de Zoet is tasked with investigating Dejima’s notorious corruption. In de Zoet’s time, Nagasaki was a mysterious land ruled by powerful samurais and enigmatic traditions, and the inevitable clash between East and West provides the animating force for most of the novel’s action.
With its large cast of colorful characters and its adventure-laden plot, including a forbidden love affair and a daring rescue attempt from a dangerous sex cult, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet maintains its quick pace for nearly five hundred pages. Throughout it all, Mitchell employs the conventions of the genre while avoiding most of its clichés. This book’s fault, if it has one, is its exuberant excess. The plethora of characters, subplots, and historical details can be challenging to keep up with, particularly in the first hundred pages. This superabundance is also the novel’s greatest strength, however, as it results in a realistic rendering of an entire world with all its messiness and complexity. While not as groundbreaking as Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an old-fashioned historical adventure tale that also manages to be thrilling and inventive.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is published in the United States by Random House.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear here and there regularly.