The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel

From the author of Cloud Atlas, a tale of tenuous East/West relations in turn of the 19th century Japan

Book Review

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel

by David Mitchell
Random House, 496 pp., $26

David Mitchell has played his artistic hand very well. Being an immensely gifted writer helps, but knowing when to play which cards creates a perfect nest to place his latest work. In 2004, Cloud Atlas solidified Mitchell's place as one of the most original and talented writers of our generation, and his 2006 follow-up, Black Swan Green, ensured that no critic thought he needed narrative trickery to impress. With nothing else to prove, he faced a lack of pressure that formed a novel that lets the reader relish Mitchell's created world and become lost in the rhythm of the author's language.

The story – set during the turn of the 19th century at the financially flailing outpost of the Dutch East India Company, with the mannered and exotic Japan situated on the other side of a well-guarded gate – follows the title character as he tries to uncook the books of trade while getting sucked into the complex politics of tenuous East/West relations. Other characters from the Japanese side of the wall offer their take on the novel's action and often get to spin their own yarns. This Cubist way of looking at the same story slowly untwists itself into a page-turning action yarn that is as rewarding as it is earned by the author's narrative legwork.

Mitchell abandons almost all of his previous postmodern trappings, leaving an engrossing tale told with deeply insightful language that has the effect of rewiring or refreshing tired linguistic s.ynapses. Autumns' phrasing – for example, the description that a character's laugh "is born, lives and dies in his ever-congested nose" – often has an unpretentious conciseness that is accentuated by Mitchell's encyclopedic knowledge of the time and place in which his characters reside.

Myriad though his gifts may be, there's no reason for Mitchell to show off. Instead he brings to life an isolated trading post and an isolated nation during an oft-neglected time period with an ease that doesn't trumpet his brilliance, which lets the story and characters shine even brighter.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel, David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

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