"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell

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In which world will we find ourselves on opening David Mitchell’s next book? In which universe? In “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” Mr. Mitchell transports us in classic style to late medieval Japan, to that nation’s one portal to the outside world. And he takes us, his joyous, eagerly-led readers, on a captivating journey yet again.

Our eponymous clerk, Jacob de Zoet, sails from The Netherlands in 1799 to Nagasaki, or more exactly to Dejima, the one precinct where Dutch traders are allowed in Edo-era Japan. He seeks his fortune, like every other Dutch seaman, and wants to return home and marry. However good his intentions, he finds corruption, oppression, xenophobia, and violence. He remains untouched by it – or rather, he keeps himself blameless no matter what the consequences. The blamelessness endures, but events originating in the clash of cultures, the greed of everyone around him, and British ambitions in the region, soon combine to make Dejima not a trading post with its promise of enriching de Zoet, but a prison that threatens to kill him.
Tribulations include forbidden love, ritual butchery of innocents, and subtle, deadly court intrigues. Throughout it all, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” glitters with terrific, vivid, timeless effects. The two worlds – of Japan and Holland, of Eastern mysticism and Protestant orthodoxy, of trading aggressiveness and de jure xenophobia – our upstanding, put-upon clerk witnesses all. A fine invention is Jacob de Zoet – someone to be admired, remembered, and loved. And Mr. Mitchell earns our admiration here, too, for his full, nuanced, and yet epic story.

Mr. Mitchell masters so many ideas and details in this mighty work: intimate personal portraiture, the forbidden, torturing nature of cross-culture love, the brutal prejudices on all sides at the dawn of the 19th Century, and most of all, the strict, formalized manners and morality of late medieval Japan. All these receive the author’s deft, convincing hand, and all results in a sweeping adventure, memorable, engaging, glorious. David Mitchell reminds us once again of why we read, and especially why we impatiently await his efforts.
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