Modern Masters

First 100 pages: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

Jdz Having a slow reading week so thought I would post on my thoughts on the first 100 pages of this extremely popular Booker nominee. 

Firstly, what a beautiful cover. The copy I have from the library is hardback with a covering which seems to be canvas printed with ink? Not quite sure how they've made it but it's very pretty. Knowing nothing of the story before I opened it, I didn't really register what was on the cover, but now I'm quite captivated by the artwork.

Secondly, do not start this book over breakfast! The first scene is a fairly graphic description of a birth which has gone horribly wrong (and I haven't yet managed to link the outcome to the rest of the novel yet. I'm waiting for that "oh, I remember him from the start" moment).

But in all seriousness, this is a wonderful piece of fiction. I trust that Mitchell has done his historical research properly (Wikipedia certainly suggests a rather arduous research process) and I am learning all about the Dutch trading empire, about the Japanese "exclusion" policy (I'm sure I'll find the proper term for it in the book soon) and this bizarre little island where the Dutch and the Japanese traded with one another.

Mitchell has a beautiful turn of phrase:

        "In the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates."

        "Ink, from his cracked ink-pot, indigo rivulets and dribbling deltas… Ink, drunk by thirsty wood, dripping between cracks…"

He does drop this pearls into the narrative in single, short sentences, in a manner which almost indicates "look at my and my wonderful writing". Not quite, but it does tend towards that. Just saying. I think the intention is to keep us strongly in the plot, particularly given all the dialogue/interior monologue from de Zoet – without Mitchell's descriptive interjections we would have no grasp of the surroundings, the environment, the ambience.

I'm enjoying the varied cast, as well. Captain Lacy is a foulmouthed, sharp-witted American who provides comic relief wherever he goes, although there clearly lurks underneath a kind heart. Daniel-Snitker's tirade in his trial; Vorstenbosch's sense of justice shines through his actions (although I, like our hero, suspect that there's something else in his manner). And our hero – upright, educated, but crucially not flawless – he leaves a sweetheart in Holland to make his fortune and finds himself intrigued by a midwife in Dejima. He disobeys the laws about forbidden Christian artefacts and has had so far two close shaves in protecting his Psalter heirloom… he is stubborn and sometimes unsure, gentlemanly and suspicious.

I'm really looking forward to settling down with this over the weekend to finish it off in one long sitting! (Total pages: 468, in my edition)


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