The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Random House, June 29, 2010
David Mitchell is one of those authors who has been on my personal must-read list for a long time. His four previous novels -- Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green -- have all received breathless, ecstatic praise and earned him a near-cult following among admirers. Now, I've finally been able to experience the creative genius of David Mitchell by reading his hotly anticipated summer novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In a letter included with the advance reading copy, the book's editor, David Ebershoff, stoked my interest even more: "As a book editor, I get asked all sorts of questions about all sorts of things, but there is one question I get more frequently, and with more nearly deranged fervor than anything else: When is David Mitchell's next book coming out?" Ebershoff writes. "There is a simple explanation for this, I believe: Once you've read David Mitchell, it's pretty much impossible not to become obsessed."
Count me among the obsessed. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an amazing historical novel that has it all—mystery, romance, adventure, betrayal and scenes with so much intensity, complexity and historical detail that you'll wonder if Mitchell was reincarnated from an earlier life.
The novel opens in 1799 in Japan, where the Dutch East Indies Company has a trading post at Nagasaki. The young Dutch clerk de Zoet arrives at the post with high hopes of making his fortune and impressing the family of his beloved fiancee, Anna. But soon after his arrival he is drawn to Aibagawa, a Japanese woman whose beauty shines through the disfiguring burns on her face. As he settles down to sleep one hot summer night with his servant Hanzaburo nearby, Jacob can't keep his mind off the alluring and mysterious Aibagawa:
Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.
Hanzaburo snores in the cubby-hole outside Jacob's door.
Jacob lies awake clad in a sheet, under a tent of netting.
Ai, mouth opens; ba, lips meet; ga, tongue's root; wa, lips.
Involuntarily he re-enacts today's scene over and over.
He cringes at the boorish figure he cut, and vainly edits the script.
He opens the fan she left in Warehouse Doorn. He fans himself.
The paper is white. The handle and struts are made of paulownia wood.
A watchman smacks his wooden clappers to mark the Japanese hour.
The yeasty moon is caged in his half-Japanese half-Dutch window . . . Glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filter it, to chalk dust.
Day break must be near. 1796's ledgers are waiting in Warehouse Doorn.
It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.
Beneath his glaze of swat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.
Miss Aibagawa is untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture . . .
If you're looking for an ambitious and dazzling historical novel to add to your summer reading list, this is it.
All you Mitchell fans: we know you can't wait for this one. But how about the rest of our readers? Does anyone plan to join me as a first-time Mitchell reader and dive into The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?