The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Hachette, 472 pages, Rs595.

Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk newly arrived on Dejima, a small artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki. Dejima has been set up as a trading post for the local chapter of the Dutch East India Company, and represents the inward-looking Japanese empire’s one point of contact with the outside world. Jacob, a pastor’s son, has thrown himself into this rough-and-tumble world of trade, business, hardship and intrigue because he needs to set up a career for himself in order to win the hand of Anna, his sweetheart back home.

In Dejima, Jacob finds himself quickly having to learn the ways of an unfamiliar world, and to navigate the cliques and power structures both of the Dutch and the Japanese. The first time we see him, he has his nose broken in a scuffle. Soon, he is put to work investigating corruption at the trading post in years gone by. He fears the discovery of the small book of psalms that he has smuggled in (any trace of Christianity is forbidden by the Japanese), tries to scout for opportunities in the private sale of goods, and surprises himself by falling in love with a Japanese girl, possibly because he has so much time on his hands and so little chance to see her.

Unfamiliar world: Dejima, where the book is set. Tiseb/Flickr
David Mitchell. Murdo Macleod/Sceptre/Bloomberg

Although the conventions for how dialogue is written in a novel—the quote marks that bracket speech, the little bits of authorial description of how the character is speaking, the breaks away from a conversation to something significant and then back again—are now firmly established, readers will observe how Mitchell loves to tinker with the basic elements of narrative till he has made something distinctive. His novel has more one-sentence paragraphs than any book in recent memory, giving the narration a thrilling speed and dramatic urgency.

This is a book with a real love of story—this may be surprising, but very few of the hundreds of novels published every year are actually worthy of this compliment—and one that confirms its writer as the best British novelist of his generation.


Original story, craft and narrative art

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.

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