After David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, nested six competing eras within each other for a genre-bending fantasy, 2006’s follow-up, Black Swan Green, felt (fairly or otherwise) like a deliberate narrowing of scope. In The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet, Mitchell again confines himself to just one time period, but his imagination remains unbounded in this exuberant epic set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan.
After the family of Jacob De Zoet’s would-be bride snubs him due to his lack of income, he accepts a posting with the colonial authority in Dutch-controlled Indonesia, on the promise of a decent wage and return passage after five years. The earnest nephew of a pastor, De Zoet is transferred to Dejima, a floating trading post in Nagasaki harbor. There, his post as a clerk to the chief trader grants him entry into a shadow society of corrupt deals and unlawful alliances. He seeks to withdraw, fearing a 20-year term handling the business of the local trading partners who increasingly resent their Western allies, even as some line their pockets with duty fees. De Zoet befriends two Nagasaki residents, whose course the novel follows as well—shy Orito, a midwife who is kidnapped and sold to an order of nuns, and Uzaemon, Jacob’s interpreter and closest companion.
Mitchell’s obsession with close ties of inequality among people has led him into dark corners before, but the society De Zoet inhabits offers a wealth of overlapping conglomerations of class, race, occupation, and respect for the Dutch clerk to navigate. The disputes of the would-be colonizers offset the courtly intrigues of their partners in uneasy peace: As the power of the shogunate dims, compared to that of the newly enriched, the official policy of executing subjects who attempt to leave—or even wish to—furnishes an ironic mirror to the subjects of Dejima, who have traveled halfway around the world, only to be virtually trapped on their fort.
De Zoet’s trials rise above the thicket, but all Mitchell’s protagonists are similarly lodged in lives they didn’t anticipate; he continually floods them with detail such that they captivate even as their inner lives become paramount. Mitchell introduces the same penetrative gaze to the minds of Javanese slaves, Japanese patriarchs, and Irish sailors-turned-fortune-hunters, making his brutal world thoroughly bewitching.