Thursday, 14 October 2010

A Year in Books 2010 - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I tend to have 2/3 books on the go at one time which means that I tend to start and finish them in chunks. I'm a big fan of David Mitchell who I think writes some of the most beguiling and interesting fiction around. He is the one author whose work I think will still be going strong in 30 years time and one of the most suited to make that next step up to the league of Amis and McEwan.

His last book was a pretty straight forward coming of age novel "Black Swan Dream" and before that was the inspiring Cloud Atlas which weaves 6 distinct stories in 6 ages of time written in 6 distinct genre styles.

For his latest novel he has shifted time and place again. This time we head to a dutch trading post on a tiny Island just off main land Japan at the end of the 18th century. We are introduced to Jacob De Zoet as he is tasked with hunting out corruption in this out post of the Dutch East India Trading Company. Through this task we meet a myriad of characters on both sides of the cultural divide, all drawn with distinct loving care and all with subtle motivations and traits. The book is split in 3 parts, in the first we see Jacob go about his task with serious straight ahead honesty, whilst troubled with his own desires for both promotion and a young scarred Japanese student of the acerbic Dr Marinus. This section ends with Jacob realising the world doesn't run in straight lines as he loses both the girl and his status.

The second part moves into the heart of Japan as the same student,on the death of her father, is sent to serve in temple that hides a terrible secret. The focus shifts to her time in the temple and the attempts of Jacob's interpreter to rescue her. Like Jacob before him, with success in his grasp, the interpreter learns the cost of betrayal.

The final part returns to the island and Jacob who has to deal with the arrival of a British frigate intent of replacing the Dutch as the sole trading partners with the Japanese.

The true beauty of this novel comes not only with the beautiful use of language but the way that each thread of the story weaves around each other with an ending that pulls it all together to leave you with a sense of sad satisfaction. The descriptions of Japan and the 2 cultures of the Dutch traders and the Japanese nobility are expertly drawn. The trick is the realisation that although the world of the 18th century is so different the motivations and confusions of men are timeless.

This really is story telling of the highest class and you can buy The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet here

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