If you’ve read any of David Mitchell’s earlier books, specifically [book: Cloud Atlas], I imagine you’ll think — like I did — that [book: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet] takes place over literally a thousand years. I should burst that bubble for you now: it doesn’t. Somewhere in the middle of the book, you learn that Japan is the land of a thousand autumns.
To your and my surprise, then, this is a completely straightforward novel. I think Mitchell may have been compelled to convince the world that, yes, he can write novels that start one place, end another place, and don’t try to mess with your mind. He does it very well, as it turns out.
The title character lands in the Dutch outpost on Dejima, just off the coast of Nagasaki. (Right here, I expected that by the end of the book we would be in Nagasaki when the Bomb fell in 1945. The book starts [and, as it turns out, ends] in the 1700s, so I was immediately puzzled: how will Time-Traveling David Mitchell hit 1,000 autumns when we only have a couple hundred years to play with? Honestly, this left me with an odd feeling of anxiety.) He’s been beckoned there to help clean up the books: Dutch authorities believe that there’s been some mischief in the import/export accounting, and de Zoet is just the sort of upright man to clean things up.
Stop here and, being a good economist, consider the incentives. How much luck is a morally upright man going to have in such corrupt circumstances? If everyone’s in on taking a little out of every shipment, our hero will certainly have to be politically astute to avoid dashing his career (if not himself) on the rocks. He’s on a lonely island, surrounded by people he may very well make his enemies. The suspense of watching de Zoet wend his way through this battlefield is where the bulk of the book’s ample charm comes from.
There’s also, of course, a love interest: de Zoet falls curiously in love with a nurse whose face is mysteriously disfigured. I was going to go into some more detail about the difficulties they face in getting together, but I think I won’t. They face difficulties aplenty, needless to say, and the source of those difficulties turns out — as the story goes on — to be horrifying. If I said anything more, I’d risk giving away some of [book: Thousand Autumns]’s captivating plot twists.
It’s an absolutely riveting book; I couldn’t put it down. I might gripe that the ending is too pat (it’s almost as though Mitchell is responding sarcastically to those who believed he couldn’t write a more-standard novel), but that’s small beer: go grab a copy and be absorbed for the next few hours.
Hi, Steve — I’ve got a question unrelated to this post, but can’t find an e-mail address anywhere for you. I’m an editor on the Boston Globe op-ed page and may have an idea for you. Please write me at dramos [at] globe [dot] com should you see this. Thanks.