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'Tis The Season For 'The Thousand Autumns'

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet

You don't have to be a publishing expert to guess which trends are driving the book industry this year. In: vampires; werewolves; vampires fighting with werewolves; vampires fighting with werewolves inserted, for some reason, in the middle of a Jane Austen novel. Not in: novels about sober, upstanding Dutch trading clerks on assignment in Tokugawa-era Japan. Nothing against the Netherlands, the shipping industry, or the Edo shogunate, but such stories don't present obvious merchandising opportunities or lend themselves to CGI-enhanced film adaptations.

That's the assumption, anyway — but if anyone can prove it wrong, it's David Mitchell. The 41-year-old British novelist has made a career of defying expectations, while still retaining commercial popularity and ecstatic critical praise. Mitchell is probably still best known for Cloud Atlas, his complex 2004 masterpiece. The novel walked the line between modernism and postmodernism, but was readable to an almost addictive degree. He followed it two years later with Black Swan Green, a comparatively straight-ahead coming-of-age novel — while it lacked the dreamy inventiveness and linguistic pyrotechnics of its predecessor, it still blew readers away with its winsome humor, emotional sincerity, and keen ear for the speech of 1980s British youth.

Mitchell's new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, splits the thematic and stylistic differences between his previous two books, combining Cloud Atlas' fascination with history and the theme of the journey with Black Swan Green's more straightforward narrative structure and understated empathy. Jacob, the title Hollander, takes a job with the Dutch East Indies Company, hoping to earn enough money to impress his would-be wife's father. He's stationed in Dejima, a man-made island near Nagasaki, and given the job of reviewing the company's books — problems with fraud and smuggling have left their accounts in bad shape. As Jacob gets used to life in Japan, and becomes entranced with Orito, a young Japanese woman studying medicine on the island, he's slowly being made into a patsy by the thieves still employed at the company. Things get bad quickly, and the clerk is forced into a series of quick decisions, never sure whether he'll ever escape the walled boundaries of Dejima.

Fans of Mitchell's earlier novels might be surprised at the author's apparent newfound narrative restraint, but as understated as it is, Jacob de Zoet displays the same narrative genius and complex structure as novels like Ghostwritten (Mitchell's 1999 debut, also set partially in Japan). Jacob is an unusually compelling character, despite his straight-laced, sometimes humorless attitude. Mitchell allows the reader to experience the clerk's love for his fiancee, his obsession with Orito, and his attempts to reconcile both. It helps that the supporting characters are so well-drawn and fascinating, from the brilliant but hostile Doctor Marinus (Orito's mentor) to the gleefully venal cook Arie Grote, who speaks in an enchanting and hilarious thief's cant. Mitchell lets his sense of humor shine through, to the greatest effect of his career so far — in one scene, a co-worker laughs at the stares the red-haired Jacob receives while walking down the street. "Don't deny you enjoy the attention," he says, to which Jacob replies, "But I do deny it. I deny it utterly."

It's almost impossible to compare Mitchell to any other living author. Of his contemporaries, perhaps only Michael Chabon and Salman Rushdie are as consistently good at creating cerebral, non-obvious adventure novels; you'd have to go back to Nabokov, Tolstoy, or Dickens to find a novelist quite so flawlessly inventive. After five books, it's now safe to say that Mitchell is probably one of our best English language novelists — not everything he writes is perfect, but very few other writers even approach his consistency and wild inventiveness. Jacob de Zoet might not be Mitchell's best novel, but it's closer than you'd think, and it's a testimony to the author's genius that he's fashioned a story about a shipping clerk that will almost certainly turn out to be one of the best books of the year.

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Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.