Review: ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell

url9I adored ‘Cloud Atlas’ and loved ‘Ghostwritten’, so ‘Jacob de Zoet’ was my third trip into David Mitchell territory, and I was full of high hopes.

Initially, my hopes were a little deflated: there’s a LOT of information and technicalities get your head around in the first part, making it a little difficult to get a reading rhythm going. It did feel a little stilted and there were a few times I had to put this down in order to gather my poor reeling head.


Perseverance pays off! With the shock betrayal of Jacob’s principle by Voerstenbosch and Van Cleef, and Aibagawa Orito’s evident kidnap, everything kicked up a gear in the final moments of Part One, and left you hungry for more.

Orito’s story was my absolute favourite throughout; initially because she was a woman trying to live in a man’s world (thanks to the open-mindedness of the indomitable Dr Marinus), but then because she was a fighter with feeling. The moment where she had escape within her clutches and turned back for the benefit of others was absolutely heartbreaking, but equally wonderful in showing a bravery beyond just getting out and being safe.

Talking of which, the story of Mount Shiranui was horrifically captivating: the balance between it being perceived as a haven but actually being a temple of death and sacrifice was elegantly crafted and haunting in its composure. Watching Ogawa Uzaemon flail against the invincibility of this cult of terror was plot perfection; hopelessness and inevitability at this point invades even the strongest believer in good triumphing over evil, and as such intensifies the emotional reaction against Lord Enomoto and his evil creeds.

I’ll admit the introduction of the British naval fleet in Dejima was, although initially an interesting twist, something that soon lost its interest. Captain Penhaligon (and his interminable gout!) was a fascinating character nonetheless, and I’ve never witnessed such a subtle blend of grief manifesting itself in every action as I had within his plot unfolding. The only thing that stuck in my gullet here was the survival of Daniel Snitker, former Dejima Dutchman trader and traitor to the Dutch empire in Japan; how on earth did he get from chains to the British empire’s fleet, and in doing so find not only refuge but a refuge with a fluent Dutch translator to enact his revenge? A lot of convenience, but forgivable for the plot it allowed to unfold.

For this leads to one of my favourite single moments in the book:  Jacob de Zoet (not forgetting Marinus and William Pitt the monkey) in a solo stance against the British invaders to Dejima, standing alone where all else had fled or lost everything. It was touching and it was real; both men wetting themselves, for example, showed heroism doesn’t have to look pretty to be amazing.

And the ending: David Mitchell knows how to write an ending that stays with you. Yes, Jacob de Zoet’s autumns are not what he thought, and never what he planned, but they are everything that makes us human and wonderful. So yet again, another David Mitchell book that thrills, captivates, confuses in places but causes wonder all over. Remember, persevere with ‘Jacob de Zoet’ and it will pay off; maybe not in copper shares or Dutch profits, but in pure pleasure alone.

Review: ‘Ghostwritten’ by David Mitchell

I started my experience of David Mitchell (writer, not comedian) with ‘Cloud Atlas’, a book so beautiful I longed to hear it, sense it, experience it. And now, I continue my experience with perhaps the more metaphysical book, ‘Ghostwritten’ – another collection of interconnected stories, but one truly more haunting in its realism.

The thing that intrigued me most about this book was how real it was; there was nothing about it that couldn’t happen, even the subtle underplayed terror of the ‘Night Train’ chapter. It starts with Quasar; I have never before seen how easy it can be for people to be radicalised. It’s an odd perspective to explore, but I am genuinely glad Mitchell did – how many times have we considered the perspective of the terrorist? None, people would argue, because they are terrorists and we inherently despise them. I’m not arguing against that, but what I do think is that we’ve never looked over that fence through fear, controversy, a lack of reason to be curious about something that might seem so clean cut. But that’s why it works – Mitchell is taking something so horrendous and making it accessible, piquing our curiosity without trying to manipulate or serve an agenda; we’re just shown how it happens. It’s fascinating, unendingly so…

61-bsggxrrl-_sl300_…Until we go on to the Forbes, Caspar, the non-corpora, Mo, Bat Segundo…all of them! There was no letting up in this book. Moving from the classical story of mountains and faith, to more divisive issues such as communism and war, to the modernity of living in a fast-paced society – I would struggle to name an issue that wasn’t dealt with. It would be near-impossible to find a favourite, as it is for the Zookeeper to correlate the laws of being. Perhaps the first story of Quasar and the non-corpora segment were the ones that lasted with me the longest; I’ve discussed Quasar, but what the latter highlighted for me was the unknowability of the world, one with a million possibilities and only a handful of answers. It was resonating and soul-searching in the most beautiful way, a style David Mitchell owns.

What really fascinates me is that this isn’t a collection of short stories, not in the traditional sense. It’s more than that; it’s stories interwoven in their very fabric of being, and the subtlety and unexplained nature of the links is reflective of the laws of coincidence that govern our lives. The nice little touches, like Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish getting cameo roles, were the flourishes to a wonderful exploration of what it means to be human between the past, the present and the future. I cannot wait to read more of Mitchell’s masterpieces – they don’t just weave stories, they affect how you think, and that’s the rel magic of Mitchell’s writing.

Review: ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell

I started the journey in ‘Cloud Atlas’ with uncertainty as to what to expect, and the initial Adam Ewing story did not make me hopeful for enjoying the book. However, when the metaphorical atlas started to pull together and collaborate to make Frobisher’s musical masterpiece come true in written form, it became an intriguing and – in places – stunning read.

It’s difficult to say what the premise of ‘CA’ is; as an overview, it comprises of five lives – a birthmark and both tangible and philosophical links draw five souls together to reach a heartfelt and moralistic conclusion about the future of our civilisation. Each story is interrupted by the next until we reach ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’, where a a future lust for power and knowledge have led to the eradication of both.

Without divulging too much, my favourite stories by far were Robert Frobisher’s ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ and ‘An Orison of Sonmi 451’. Starting with Frobisher, I was in love with his flippant attitude to life; he’s what we all want to be, the person who just lives for their passion and will harmlessly use people to find (and fund!) his dream, and subtly reminds us that the world was constantly evolving in terms of class, sexual and political equality. The end of his story was as beautiful as it was haunting; to be so consumed by your passion that it challenges existence beyond it – how do you cope when you know your life’s work is achieved? Even now, a week after finishing Mitchell’s novel, I feel compelled to consider what options were left in Frobisher’s future; unlike Luisa Rey, his story catapulted from start to end, rather than start to end to a new beginning all over again.

Then there was Sonmi. There’s an aura of something special and unusual unfolding throughout her story, and something about it never feels complete – the ending to this (again, without spoiling) perhaps reveals how much you can be told and yet how little you really know. The frightening future of corpocracy was perhaps a little close for comfort; how long until genetic engineering crosses a barrier mankind should never confront? You only have to think of the dire warnings of God-like knowledge in texts like ‘Frankenstein’ to understand how dangerous knowledge can be in the wrong hands, and how recapturing the power behind knowledge is a struggle going beyond one life. What struck me most about Sonmi’s story was that she never seemed angry or disparaging towards man; there was a freshness and honesty behind her story that negated the need for emotional fluctuations. I was about to say that perhaps she shows mankind can redeem itself when faced with corruption, but then I realised that it doesn’t, and perhaps that’s one of the scarier insights into our future; it takes our creations and things we have tried to subjugate to remind us how far we’ve strayed from a morally sound society.

Picking out my favourites doesn’t, of course, mean I didn’t enjoy the other texts, although there tended to be something that jarred about the characters in these texts. Adam Ewing’s initial outing was perhaps a bit overly moralistic to allow me to warm to him, but his final text was fascinating, perhaps because he suffered misfortune and injustice, just like the rest of us – life was not perfect after all, despite his preaching. Likewise, Luisa Rey was a bit too preppy before realising she was destructible and her efforts would not succeed just for their purity alone – by her ending, I felt like her experiences allowed her to deserve her outcome. Content-wise, Zachry’s story was fascinating, as a lot of post-apocalyptic (although I use the term loosely – man’s implosion is perhaps more in his control that we’d ever like to admit) writing is: it just took a long time to read his dialect!

So having initially not seen a point to these interlocking stories, Sonmi, much as in the book, guided the way to Mitchell’s purpose: to show that, even if souls don’t cross ages, ideals do and passion for life will succeed, even if only for a short while. Eventually, our souls intertwine and we strive for the same outcome: learning, growing, fulfilment and happiness.