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David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I first encountered David Mitchell through his debut “novel” Ghostwritten, an intricately linked collection of short stories that really tickled my structural fancy. Of course, he is now mostly known for Cloud Atlas, another linked set of stories that span from centuries in the past to millennia in the future with impressive facility. In between he’s written another couple of more conventional novels, which I have not read.

This is his latest, and I was actually excited enough about it to place an order from the UK, since it was released a month earlier than the US and so was China MiĆ©ville’s Kraken, about which more in a subsequent post. It’s a historical novel, and much has been made of the fact that it’s supposedly Mitchell’s first, but honestly his previous work already has many historical elements. It takes place around 1800, largely on a small artificial island outside of Nagasaki where the Dutch trade with Japan.

The historical stuff works well. It’s a very interesting time and place, and the writing is the sort of historical fiction that I like, demonstrating the setting with a nice amount of detail without hitting you over the head with it. The plot and structure are pretty odd, though. I don’t like to spoil much in these reviews, but I will say that the entire focus of the novel changes fairly radically multiple times, each of which caught me by surprise, and one of which made me pretty uncomfortable for a while. I guess Mitchell’s tendency to divide a novel into contrasting parts dies hard, even when writing a book that is more unified on the surface.

But it really does end up being one story, and once you get through the slower scene-setting chapters, it’s a pretty gripping one. I would still recommend Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten before this one, and they will probably stick with me longer, but it was still an excellent book and I’m very happy to see that it’s already been a bestseller in England.