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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Nineteenth Century Novel With A Twenty-First Century Sensibility

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell

Set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most of the action of The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet takes place on Dejima, an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki off the coast of Japan. The central character, Jacob, is a conscientious clerk working for the Dutch East India Company and the plot revolves around his love for a disfigured Japanese midwife who is kidnapped and closeted in a highly secretive order of nuns when her father dies leaving overwhelming debts.

Mitchell can turn a nice phrase when he wants to –"the rain's innumerable hooves clatter on the streets and roofs", for example, or "under the eaves pigeons coo like grandmothers greeting new-born babies", but his real skill lies in the complexity of his design and the grand architecture of his vision. This is a work of such scale that it is as though one was reading a nineteenth century novel that had somehow been written with a contemporary sensibility.

There are certainly difficulties, perhaps one might say faults, in the writing. In particular, there are far too many characters. At a guess, I would say there may be a hundred and fifty and many of them are not particularly well-developed. Nevertheless, the ambition of the narrative and Mitchell's achievement in carrying it off are astonishing.

The richness, the detail and the sheer vividness of the picture that is summoned up, the way that the contrasting worlds of Japanese society, deliberately closed to the outside world, and Europe feverish with enlightenment and expansionism, are neatly and expertly dissected and their insides shown to be teeming with characters, incidents and episodes each of which contributes to the grand design like pebbles in a landslide - all of this simply takes my breath away. I cannot think of any other living writer who could come near to approaching such a feat.