David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

IMG_2020Another long novel. But this review, along with the two that follow, will be brief.

All this reading has taken place amidst quite large changes: the end of the teaching year, moving house; endings and beginnings that always seem to feature packing bags and assessment of the weight of belongings. I will be mired in textbooks very soon, so I have been making the most of the time I have left for fiction. I may have to leave some books behind when I leave Bangkok, and this has given me pause for thought. What could I jettison instead?

I’d never read anything by David Mitchell before this. I’d seen someone reading The Thousand Autumns… on the tube once, and also remembered seeing Cloud Atlas on the shelves of one of my English Professors at University. So far, so vague. It’s another weighty tome. I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop in Kanchanaburi, and carried it around sweatily and regretfully for the rest of the day. But on a breezy balcony, I forgave it. It fully justifies its heft by its depth and intelligence. The plot starts at a slow amble – easing you deftly into the history (the Dutch East Indies Company), the culture (Japan in the late 1700s) and the characters that will populate the scenery for the next 500 or so pages – building pretty rapidly into a gallop that doesn’t ease off until you put it down. But don’t assume the pace compensates for poor craftsmanship. This is very impressive, well-researched, gripping and multi-layered storytelling.

A historical novel with elements of the magical. A seafaring novel played out mainly on land. ‘Beautiful’ is not a word that I like to use often, but it applies here. As with all great novels, it felt like it ended much too soon.


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