Saturday, February 8, 2014

When Dutch and Japanese cultures colide in expert hands

Book: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Published: 2010 (Sceptre)
Pages: 546
You guys might think I’m a little star-struck (DAVID MITCHELL IS COMING TO MY CITY NEXT MONTH) and/or weird when I tell you that this story of 18th-century trade between the Dutch and the Japanese is absolutely riveting. You’d be right, of course, but I’m right, too, dang it.
The Dutch are all up in this tiny man-made Japanese island that has no idea what the rest of the world is like, and they’ve got a decent setup based on ore or something that is about to go ka-blewy from Dutch greed, Japanese suspicion, and British invasion. Caught in the middle of this and both languages as a reluctantly ladder-climbing clerk is a young Dutch man who sees a young Japanese woman who studies medicine and has a burn on her face and immediately falls in love.
But of course it’s not that easy. The girl isn’t considered good for marriage, and although the Dutch boy finally gets up the courage to propose to her on paper and she decides to agree (it means relative security), she’s taken to a monetary to act as a nun in a fertility-worshipping temple where the monks ritually get the nuns pregnant and…well. The babies are not exactly given up for adoption as the nuns are told.
So she’s trying to get out of there and he’s trying to get her out of there and the Dutch are trying to grab more Japanese trade when the British show up to grab the island for themselves.
It’s all told through a richly human filter of culture clash, mismatched languages, warring ambitions, and duty-vs.-heart, and there’s not a love-conquers-all ending to invalidate all the hard-won life that goes on in between.
It’s also completely unlike Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, and that’s why I love David Mitchell more every time I read something new by him – he’s amazing at using a pitch-perfect tone for each of his wildly different stories. It’s like he’s fluid in a couple different instruments; sure, he can get an infinite number of songs from a guitar alone, but they’ll all ultimately sound like a guitar, which is not a bad thing. But the variety of switching from guitar to piano, and the intuition to know which songs sound best on each, takes his skills up a level.  
*puts aside metaphor* Definitely bookshelf for this one. I’m going to get Black Swan Green signed, because that’s my favorite, and if he’s selling any of his older books I’m gonna buy those from him. (If not, I tried. Hello, Amazon!)

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