The Day has finally arrived - Tuesday, June 29th is the release day for David Mitchell's new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Why is this important, you ask? Besides the fact that Mitchell is my favorite author - a fact that you should be fully aware of - this is the best novel I have read yet so far this year.
Mitchell is the author of four previous books, two of which (Number9dream and Cloud Atlas) were short-listed for the Booker Prize (his fourth, Black Swan Green, made the Longlist). Born in England, he spent about a decade living in Japan (where he married his wife and started his family) before moving to Ireland in 2002. He has been named one of the Granta's best young novelists and Time magazine picked him as the lone literary novelist on their 2007 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Whadda-ya think of that? Where've you been? Cloud Atlas has long been one of my favorite books - it has resided comfortably on the bestseller display at Warwick's since its release in August 2004. Granted, that's mostly because I won't allow it to be removed, but still, we've sold almost 500 copies in that timespan. And where Cloud Atlas is a complex, multi-layered force of nature - featuring 6 different storylines that intertwine and merge into one conhesive portrait of humanity - Thousand Autumns is rather straightforward in its narration and scope.
It is set in 1799 on the manmade, Dutch trading post island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan. Incredibly, Dejima was a very real place - in the 16th & 17th centuries, foreign traders were not allowed to set foot onto the actual mainland of Japan and were relegated to life on this fabricated island. Jacob de Zoet is a clerk for the Dutch East India Company assigned to Dejima who just wants to do an honest job, make a little money, and work his way back home to his future bride. If only life in a David Mitchell novel were that simple.
The Dutch survive as Japan's sole trading partner through an uneasy alliance based on the certainty of supplies from the outside world - what happens when something goes wrong on the supply chain? Jacob is faced with internal corruption and vicious political manuevering, the delicate balancing act of the Japanese partnership, a daunting language barrier, the mysterious banishment of the woman he loves, the hushed-up financial collapse of his employer, and an imminent attack by foreign invaders, all of which test the limits of his faith - a faith strictly forbidden in Japan on the cusp of the 19th century. There are multiple narrators throughout, as is Mitchell's wont, but it is structurally done in such a subtle way that you hardly notice - you are just swept along in the flow, wondering, as a foreigner like Jacob, how much of the lush, inner world of Japan you will be allowed to glimpse.
This is really fantastic, fully-rendered historical fiction - if that's your bag, check this out for sure. If you're a David Mitchell fan, there should be no question of which book you purchase from your local, friendly independent bookstore on Tuesday. For more on Mitchell, check out his interview in the current edition of The Paris Review (there's an excerpt available on their website.) Or for even more, come to Warwick's and Steven and I'll tell you all about him.