I continue to read my way through this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association.
Last night I finished “The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” by David Mitchell. And I was sad to reach the last page. What an intriguing novel.
The story begins in 1799, on the island of Dejima, just off of Nagasaki, Japan. The island is where the Dutch are allowed, and just about the only place where they are allowed, to run the Dutch India Company. The closed-in society of just a few Europeans, their Japanese translators, and other officials, is the context for intense relationships. Many of the scenes happen aboard ship, another closed-in space. Must of the action happens in the first few years, but then Mitchell fast-forward to the end of Jacob’s life, back in Europe.
Jacob is an honest man, which doesn’t serve his career well. He falls in love with a fascinating woman, a midwife with a burned face. He secretly proposes to her, not realizing that the messenger he’s chosen is in love with her too. She’s kidnapped away. He endures. He becomes renowned for his courage when he stands firm in an observation tower while a British ship’s cannons attack Nijima.
David Mitchell crafts this very powerfully–I’ve been trying to think of how to describe this. The plot is one thing, but the machinations of the people, the ways that they must operate when communication can’t be direct, create all kinds of confusion and bewilderment. The cultures collide in countless ways. Into the mix come the distance from home, and fierce hopes for success.
Following up on my complaints about long books, I should note that I didn’t sense any sagging in the middle of this book’s 479 pages. It holds up well.
I salute David Mitchell for his ability to write such varied stories. I’d forgotten that he wrote “Black Swan Green,” a lovely Notable Book from 2007, a book about a contemporary British boy. HIs “Cloud Atlas” was also “notabled” in 2005. Really, his books are quintessential Notables. They are one-of-a-kind stories, with almost nothing predictable, and with plenty that deeply resonates and resolves.
I’ll recommend this to people who love literary fiction, who are interested in history or in Asia, and to readers who yearn for something uniquely good.