David Mitchell’s novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet at under 500 pages has to be my blockbuster read of this summer, with its big themes, sense of mystery and sometimes melodrama, a triangular love story, wonder characters, gripping developments and a mostly beautiful prose style that merges into poetry and rhyme at times.
Mitchell is a stylist and this book is hugely stylised set in a small island of Desima in the port of Nagasaki in a Japan where foreigners are excluded in 1799, a turn of a century where Japan is hugely organised and structured social, political and spiritual rules exclude a world where Dutch traders have some small restricted influence with American and British ships in the bay ready to change history.
De Zoet is a minor clerk sent by the regimented Dutch East India Co to sort out aspects of trade and expose corruption like a book keeper or auditor and at the same time impress an imperious potential father-in-law. However he is beguiled by the strangeness of his surroundings and is infatuated with a ten year old concubine and a facially scarred Japanese midwife Orito. He cannot resist temptation in this amazing island of commerce, capitalism, corruption, archaic laws, nasty people and curious characters.
The opening chapter where we meet Orita, plunges the reader into the Ninth Night Of The Fifth Moon as she tries with a Dutch doctor to deliver a still-born baby whose arm protrudes from the mother’s vagina. The male doctor is forbidden to touch the mother and the midwife has to extract the baby. It is gripping descriptive stuff and the discarded lifeless baby stirs in the last line – and the shuddering newborn boiled-pink despot howls at life.
What a beginning and we quickly move into a thriller plot as the might of a Shogun or ruler sells Orita to an evil abbot monk who rules a secretive mountain shrine where young girls are made pregnant by monks to further a horrible ritual. There are Samurai raids, chases and lots of peripheral incidents as the story moves through Dutch phases and densely beautiful Japanese phases mixed with a heightened English style.
I do not want to give away too much of the story but it is a super read, sometimes pure pastime and sometimes overly poetic but well worth the time for the narrative quality alone.