Cloud Atlas intrigued me because it is actually six long stories set in different periods, starting with the 19th Century and moving into the distant future, each of which is broken off in the middle only to be continued (in reverse order) in the latter half; all of them are connected ingeniously in a manner which I will not give away. I hastened to read his earlier books, Ghost Written (Random House, 2001) and Number 9 Dream (Random House, 2003). His next book, Black Swan Green (Random House, 2007), couldn't have been more different: a coming-of-age novel (presumably autobiographical) set in a small English town, each chapter covering a month in the narrator's thirteenth year, and captivating in its charm.
In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Jacob is a young man who has been sent by the father of the young woman he wishes to marry to spend years abroad and make some money. He is hired by the company administering the trade on the island as a kind of auditor, with the task of uncovering any devious or underhanded transactions or self-dealing; he finds all too much of this but is disheartened to discover that no one wants the information disclosed, causing him to be ostracized and alone on the island.
In the meantime he has been smitten by glimpses of a young Japanese woman who, being very advanced for the time, is admitted to the island from time to time in order to learn from the Dutch doctor in residence there. Needless to say there is no prospect of any contact between them, but when Jacob learns that she has been sold to a kind of cult nunnery he begins to work on her rescue. Yes, this book is an adventure story, a love story, a story of rescue and revenge; it is obvious by now that there is nothing David Mitchell cannot do!
One of the book's charms is the fact that although it is written in English the characters are for the most part actually speaking Dutch or Japanese; indeed the official translators are among the very few people allowed to have ready access to the island, and Jacob manages to astound his colleagues (let alone his hosts) by teaching himself some Japanese. Somehow by Mitchell's magic the reader can sense when Dutch or Japanese is being spoken (even when there is slang involved, mostly on the part of the Dutch sailors) and is able to tell them apart.At the end, a British warship appears and although the Dutch are able to deflect them it is pretty clear that the colonial era is moving to its next phase, which will be harsher than ever and in which the Dutch will no longer have any place. And although there is great respect for the Japanese and their customs and traditions, the fact is that as shown in this book they are as corrupt and brutal as their would-be trading partners, so perhaps each gets what they deserve.
Mitchell is one of our most accomplished and also entertaining novelists, and this book is simply a must.
— Jeremy Nussbaum
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