First, a huge thanks to Librarything, where I received this book as part of the LT Early Reviewers' program. Somehow I think the algorithm is psychic, as I always seem to get the book I want most.
A second thank you to Random House for sending a copy that I had probably requested and forgotten about. That copy now is going to Librarything as part of its member giveaway program where people who requested it and didn't get it through ER will have another chance.
According to an interview with The Times Online (4/18/2010) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet began with the author getting off a streetcar at the wrong stop and coming upon the Dejima museum in Nagasaki in 1996. The idea for the book went into a notebook years before he wrote Thousand Autumns, but his mistake led to one of the best novels I've read the entire year.If this one doesn't show up on the Booker Prize longlist this year, I'll be more than surprised.
Without going into the plot, Mitchell bases this work of historical fiction beginning in 1799 on the artificially-created island of Dejima, the only place that Dutch traders could operate in the closed country of Japan while Japan was isolated from the rest of the world based on its own internal policies. With very few exceptions, the Dutch were not allowed to cross into Nagasaki, and the Japanese were not allowed to cross over to the island. While the Dutch had trading privileges there, over time some Japanese people were eventually allowed to take advantage of the outsiders to learn about "Western" science, medicine, and other teachings, all collectively known as rangoku, or Dutch learning. It is in this situation that we first meet Jacob de Zoet, who has come to Japan with the Dutch East India Company to try to make his fortune and return home to Europe to marry the girl back home.
What makes this novel of historical fiction work and work very well are Mitchell's gifts with language and storytelling. Mitchell is already a well-known and talented author, but this is very different than anything he's done yet. The story takes you from the Dutch enclave at Dejima into the forests and mountains of the Japanese countryside and into the courtyards of small inns along the wide roads used in transit to and from the domain of the reigning Shogun. From there you're off to the high seas once again as more of the world knocks at Japan's door. The world of intrigue, politics and betrayal that exists within Dejima is also a way of life outside of it as well -- the same game played out over and over again in different venues by different people. The story itself is captivating, and as has been noted elsewhere, you will find yourself tempted to turn to the end to see what happens. But don't. As intriguing and often suspenseful as the novel may be, you must read it slowly, not just because it's a good story, but because you want to catch even the smallest of nuances Mitchell's writing offers. His descriptions have significance and place the reader deeper into the world in which the story occurs. A game of go becomes a verbal duel between two worthy opponents. A woman's name on Jacob's lips becomes a graphic description of properly articulating phonetic sounds. Moonlight melts glass, and the darkness is alive as "night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting." And at times, you'll be reading along and out of the blue a piece of narrative will come out like a poem, making you go back and reread the passage you've just read so you don't miss anything.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a long novel, but well worth every second spent on it. I would recommend it to everyone, although I believe its best audience will be readers of literary fiction and the already-existing loyal fanbase of David Mitchell. What a great book!