David Mitchell


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet


A great find – a tip from the librarian at Bomo High.


This book works on several levels. You get the expected historical fiction pleasure of tooling about in another time – and it *is* a pleasure because the book smacks of research. But not trainspotting research of gratuitously saying how many buttons were on a chamberlain’s undershirt, or sliding into occasional cut and paste from a text book, but research that underpins story and creates a wonderfully alternative and rich context. Moreover there’s nothing of the, for example, stupidity of characterisation in something like Cornwall’s, Sharpe's Company, which may be on the money for dates and troop numbers, but makes an appalling hash of characters: two dimensional, sure, but also particularly annoying in the contradiction between the hero’s description (intelligent, cunning, ruthless) and actions (clueless, inexplicable). Mitchell is quite the opposite: if he describes someone as intelligent, cunning and ruthless (or any of a number of other adjectives), then the accompanying actions and speech portray this unerringly. This is as praiseworthy as it is rare. Perhaps the highest commendation I can give Mitchell is that when he slipped in to several chapters of RN world, I felt there was nothing that Patrick O’Brien would have been ashamed of. And he really caught that phenomenal aspect of the time when Europeans were just blundering about the globe, and decisions made in a moment here and there could have such international significance – there often wasn’t a script, or even a protocol, and the vagaries of whether you had this captain or that one opened or closed such a range of doors. 


As well as the fun of time travel, we’ve also got the similar satisfaction of global travel: Mitchell applies the same research and writing skills to the Japanese context, weaving in different cultural rules, perceptions, orthodoxies. And (not in a cloying, tick-the-boxes, 21st Century PC way) he shows awareness that the exotic Japanese (or black or Asian slave, or love interest) characters are not merely background or foils for our white European hero, but fully developed personalities with equally rich and important stories (and this without brutally rewriting history to anachronistically dump, for example, confident contemporary feminists into a world where there wasn’t a century post suffragettes and the like to draw on), where the protagonist may be entirely incidental. Jacob de Zoet, sure, is the primary focus, but at several key points (and, perhaps, the key point) he is not pivotal – or even present (but in giving importance to a range of characters he doesn’t also make Orson Scott Card’s ‘Speaker for the Dead’ mistake of making everyone cataclysmically incredible). This aspect was one of several where I was pleasantly surprised at the departure from convention. Not that being unconventional is, in itself, effective, but the way Mitchell does it here I found really gratifying.




Another departure was that of genre. The first quarter of the book really seems to be setting itself up as a historical romance. Not Mills and Boon style, where heaving breasts and intense gazes are the core of the story, but the ultimate union of the lovers serving as the driving plot device. But at some point we slide out of that story and find ourselves – for a while anyway – in a thriller, even moving towards a classic Japanese martial arts thriller! A villain emerges who would stand comfortably beside (or more sit in the shadows behind) any other evil nemesis, and at one point you find yourself in a tense escape sub-plot. But while the changes are surprising, they’re not jarring, and they integrate with the rest of the story. It’s cool that the characters get to make some less obvious choices, and the story is robust enough not to suffer for it, and to actually be enhanced. And there is still a romantic element, but differently expressed.


The parts would be enough for this book to be worth reading, but it is woven together highly capably. I can’t say there were many places where I was snapped into a strong, visceral reaction, whether of laughter or, say, gasping at some stinging dialogue (and this is probably why I didn’t stretch to the A+), although part of this is the atmosphere of reserve/civility deliberately cultivated in much of both the Japanese and European settings described here.


From beginning to end this was a really satisfying read.


September 2014