Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Anyone who even casually glances at this blog, or my twitter feed, or facebook page, or, to be honest, probably just meets me, will quickly reach the conclusion that I'm a total geek. They're not wrong. I've been swimming in that ocean a long time, and not always been totally comfortable with it, but one of the benefits of age can be you stop giving a toss about who you think you should be and just concentrate on being who I actually am, geeky bit and all. And now I sound like that song from Frozen. Anyway, despite spending a lot of my free entertainment hours on watching, reading, and talking about all manner of geeky stuff, I do occasionally feel the urge to come up for air, and consume something outside the Great Geek Ocean, because I also like content diversity and shiny new things. 

Whats rare for me is heading to the upmarket section of the bookshelves, because I've actually got little tolerance for what is often termed "proper literature". There is something about both the few examples I've tried to read, but also the culture around it, that I find off-putting. The sense that it's more interested in being clever than anything else, for one. The fact that the cult of the author - something that blights Geek Culture too, lets be honest - is seen as just as important as the work itself, and the impression that these are books written to appeal to a close set of critics and people who like to show off their reading calibre. "Nominated for the Booker Prize" flashes like a Wasps black and yellow stripes for me, much a picture of an Elf or a Spaceship (or worse, a Spaceship Elf) does for other readers. 

This is a long of saying that it takes a lot to make me fall for an author bracketed in that "modern literature" shelf, but predictable if I do fall for one, it's going to be hard. I first read David Mitchells' Cloud Atlas a couple of years back, and have been meaning to go back to his other books since, and it was the release of The Bone Clocks that really spurred me back to it. So the first book I've read this year has been is Japan-set tale, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. (Note, this book does not contain a Thousand Autumns. What a con!)

Set in Nagasaki at the turn of the 19th Century, book covers an eventful couple of years based around the Dutch trading base of Dejima, at the time the only connection between the closed off Shogunate of Japan and the rest of the world. Jacob de Zoet arrives with his immediate superior to clean up the corruption rife on the outpost, and to renegotiate trade terms with the locals, and the books intertwines his story along with one of the principle Translators in Nagasaki and a young woman learning medicine under the European Doctor there. As I'm quickly coming to expect with Mitchell, its by turns funny, tragic, light and dark, and shot through with themes of love, loss, colonisation and predation, and the wonders and horrors of the human character. 

Whats interesting about Jacob de Zoet is that it's shorn of some of the more overt structural fireworks of much of Mitchell's other works. In fact, it's pretty straight forward and accessible - moving between characters, sure, but its a condensed location and time-frame, and even late-arriving changes and events are still very much in context. The hints of supernatural activity (in some ways this can be read as a prequel to The Bone Clocks but probably only if you've read that) sit in the background and add texture, rather than overt story hooks. But at least in part thanks to this comparative accessibility, its a book that goes really deep in it's subtext. It lingers, long after you've finished it. 

So the moral of the story is this: don't dismiss all modern novelists just because they seem to attract pretentious bollocks reviews. What you do often get from the "literary" genre (because these days its a genre with its own tropes like any other) is a healthy dose of craft, which is too often missing in geek fiction, and when thats welded to a good story, and great characters, it really sings. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is probably also the most accessible entryway to a great author, and well recommended.