What a curious, complex novel this is. Let’s start with the title. Late on in the novel we find a reference to Japan (the book’s setting) as the “land of a thousand autumns”. So on one level the novel’s title can be interpreted as “Jacob de Zoet’s life in Japan”, which would be entirely accurate. But on another level the reference to a thousand autumns – ie a thousand years – hints at the theme of unnatural longevity, which is a small under-current in the novel, which I will explore in a bit more detail later on.
Japan at the end of the 18th century was obsessively insular, and made only the smallest concessions to contact with the outside world, in the form of a very small, physically segregated Dutch trading post on an island in the port of Nagasaki. The eponymous Jacob de Zoet takes a post as a clerk on this trading post to make his fortune, and the first two hundred or so pages of the novel follows his introduction to this bizarre, corrupt community. His contact with the Japanese is very limited, but his eye is caught by a Japanese midwife and medical student. This section of the novel follows a very traditional, linear, well researched formula which passed very slowly for me – the central character is not particularly interesting or appealing, and he has not much to say about his situation other than to pine for his fiancé back in Holland and simultaneously lust after the midwife, Orito. This is presented not very convincingly as a passion which he struggles against despite himself. Quite a few of the critical online reviews mention giving up on this novel due to the lack of pace or action, and I very nearly joined them. Jacob is a passive character who as a first person narrator fails to engage the reader.
However, the novel takes a sudden shift of tone and speed when the story starts to follow Orito when she joins a convent. When shown from Jacob’s perspective at the end of his section of the novel, this is a voluntary decision, but we are quickly shown that in fact a kidnapping. Orito has been sold into captivity by her step-mother (following her father’s death). Things get much darker quickly – the convent is populated by women rescued from brothels and freakshows with various ill-defined deformities, and they are used as sex slaves by the monks in the neighbouring monastery. Kept pregnant as often as possible, their babies are stolen from them shortly after birth. We are suddenly in a completely different kind of novel, lurid, exploitative, just a little bit racist. The pace of the novel accelerates – Orito tries to escape, and then a complex and desperate rescue plan is implemented. The outrageously sinister figure behind the baby farm emerges as we learn even more horrific details about the convent.
Having set up a scenario where a character we can empathise with and care about is in desperate danger, the focus then switches again, this time back to Nagasaki and the arrival of an English ship looking to plunder from the Dutch settlement. This scene is drawn from real life incident, and provides the catalyst for the novel’s denouement. There are then some hastily sketched notes for a finale in which the author appears to have lost all interest.
Having previously read the Bone Clocks, (ie out of publication sequence) the brief references here to the death cult being more than just a sick fantasy stand out. Lord Abbott Enomoto, the cult leader, mentions at one point that he is over 600 years old – there is no real explanation of this claim, and the reader is given no clue as to whether this is the claim of a lunatic, or has any substance.
My problem with this novel is this – well researched historical romances are fine, but they are not normally my preferred choice of reading. Rape/murder/infanticide/torture/time travelling thrillers also have a specialised audience. Mashing the two together, as this novel does, goes beyond bizarre. I half expected to see some vampires and zombies being woven into the plot. The case for the defence is that this is just magical realism, but I don’t buy that. The very dark aspects of this novel go far beyond the lighter feel of most magical realism novels. I do admire what Mitchell is trying to achieve. He is reinventing the novel, or at least experimenting with its form to breaking point. He is a fine writer, and his poetry, clumsily disguised as prose, is superb. His metaphors and imagery are often remarkable. But building a novel around such bleak, disturbing themes requires more than a patina of historical realism and gentle romance. I’d be really interested in your thoughts.