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First and foremost, I have to doff my hat to the cover art of this book.  It is a wonderful design and the iridescent aqua that shimmers as you move the book in your hands is very alluring.  Full marks. 

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a beautifully lyrical title.  Set in Japan the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the story surrounds a Dutch East India clerk, Jacob de Zoet, who finds himself stationed in the company’s Japanese trading beachhead in Dejima, Nagasaki.  (‘The Thousand Autumns’ is one of the names that Japan is poetically known as, so we effectively have a title that means: ‘The Japan of Jacob de Zoet’.) 

Jacob is a straight-laced nephew of a minister out to prove his worth to his father-in-law-to-be, so that on his return from the Far East he can marry Anna.  He quickly realises he is in a viper’s nest in the small island, named Dejima, that the company trades from in Nagasaki, surrounded by unscrupulous men from all corners, all of whom are on the make.  Foreigners must stay on the island and are forbidden to learn Japanese or smuggle any religious iconography into Japan. 

In the early pages, Mitchell creates a very interesting foundation for the story – the intersection of cultures and religious viewpoints in changing times, with liberal dashes of humour.  Dejima is full of suspicious traders, translators, strange customs, spies and forbidden love. 

Soon after landing, Jacob finds Orito, a Japanese woman with a burn scar on her cheek, who is learning midwifery from a Dutch doctor.  He is instantly attracted to her.  But she is unattainable.  Relationships with Japanese women are forbidden.  The first third of the novel sets up this relationship well.  Jacob frets over his fiancé in Holland, whilst secretly wondering how to show his favour to a woman her cannot have.  He paints her picture on a fan she leaves behind in a ware house and gets the fan back to her.  Even this small act is policed, and it is only when the women tells an officer that, ‘yes, it is my fan’, does the officer not bother to inspect it.  If he had, both of them would have been in a world of trouble.  A dictionary is Jacob’s next gift. 

The writing itself is mixed.  In parts, it is lovely, but in others, many descriptions of the natural environment seem rather neglected—they are cursory and over in less than a line.  For example: “Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting”.  More successful is: (p15) Nagasaki: “wood-grey and mud-brown, looks oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes.”  

Early on, there are wonderful sprinkles of humour too.  In describing one of the dismissed company chief’s presence at the local brothel on the night one of the trading whare houses burns to the ground and the mystery of where the fire engine was that night, one of the men wonder whether the chief (p11) had taken “the engine to … impress the ladies with the size of his hose”.   And this: (p25) “No need for contracts or such stuff: a gentleman’ll not break his word.  Until later ….”  The wonderful ‘until later’ is said as a goodbye, but in this world of nefarious dealings and untrustworthy colleagues it serves as an ironic warning also. 

The book is dotted with pictures to aid out view of the action.  Dejima is drawn for us, and we get to see Jacob’s drawings of Orito.  The handful of pictures adds to our understanding of this environment. 

There are wonderfully drawn characters, from the wary, powerful, and inaccessible Japanese, to the rough and ready men of the company – including Dutch doctors, Prussians, Irish and English rogues — and a gout suffering captain of the English frigate Phoebus that surprises both the Dutch and Japanese when it sails into Nagasaki harbour later in the story. 

But, but, but: after the promising beginning, we have a rather indulgent middle section — which deals with the fate of Orito after the Powerful Japanese Magistrate Lord Enamoto moves against her after the death of her father, and the efforts on the part of one of the Japanese interpreters, Ogawa Uzaemon, to save her.  This section reads more like a literary hostage story and is quite at odds with the earlier section.  We are taken out of Dejima and Jacob’s world and though we want to know how Orito’s terrible fate is settled, Jacob does not feature and it suffers for it. 

The Thousand Autumns was long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize but did not make it through to the short list.  It doesn’t quite reach the heights of his earlier novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas — and, moreover, doesn’t match Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America which did make it through to the shortlist. 

That said, I liked the ending of The Thousand Autumns and am looking forward to Mitchell’s next work and a nod from the Booker judges.     

The Dilettante’s Rating: 3/5

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre

ISBN: 9780340921579

469 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

 Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize winning novel tells the story of a teenage girl, Sai, her grandfather – a retired judge – and their cook, set in a border region of the Indian Himalaya, a region in which the British did ‘such a poor job of drawing borders’ when they left the country behind that a Nepali separatist movement has taken up a violent struggle that progressively worsens throughout the book.   The story also traces a relationship between Sai and her tutor Gyan who becomes embroiled in the separatist movement, as well as the fate of the Cook’s son Biju, who has travelled illegally to the US for a chance of all the freedom and wealth that nation promises, only to find a much different reality.  It is the intertwinning of these lives that moves the story forward.  But it is also in part the weight of these various strands that renders the book less than I’d hoped for.   

The story opens thus:

All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.  Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.

When I read this, I got comfortable, sure that I was in the best of hands.  And for the most part I was.  Desai writes with a lyrical verve; she is poetic, her descriptions are detailed and alive, and her characters are well drawn.  (I did find her fliting from one story arc to another perhaps a little too frequently however).  There are many delightful passages and images, such as the entire village watching India beat Australia in a test match on a tv powered by a car battery becasue there is yet another black-out.  But here’s the rub, as I was reading this a friend of mine said she’d found it “underwhelming”, and I might have to agree, for at times my interest stalled and the story seemed lacking in something.  It has its humour, yet it lacked the fizz inherent in the best Indian work such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, or Rushdie at his imperial best.  Of course there is a reason for this – the brutal truths of poverty and separatist violence, as well as the frustrated parallel tales of the Cook’s son Biju’s immigrant hopes in the US and the reminisced history of Sai’s grandfather, who recalls his own frustrations about being a foreigner in England and then the unfortunate fate of being a foreigner in his own country upon his return.  

But as I read, I struggled to put my finger on why, despite my best attempts, I did not love this book.  Perhaps I’d seen this collision of East & West before?  Perhaps I was getting tired of it.  I cast my mind back to other similar tales – The God of Small Things, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (which also has a fundamentalist story angle), Salman Rushdie’s East West, and others besides.  It is the delightful East West of Rushdie, a series of 9 short stories – three under the banner or ‘East’, three under ‘West’, and the final three – and best – dealing with the ‘East West’ conjunction – that sets such a high bar and provides a wonderful foray into the lives of those who live under such foreign skies – and cultures – simultaneously.  

And so, as I went further and further into the Inheritance of Loss, I felt I was losing something myself.  I had sat down and made sure I had a pencil at hand to underline what I was sure were going to be numerous examples of luminous writing.  And they were there, and any lover of good literature will find them and enjoy them, but, sadly, I did not need to sharpen my pencil once and my interest stalled in the middle of the story.  It is perhaps because of the desperation and failure and loss inherent in the story – and present in the ending – as well as the weight of so many story arcs trying to intertwine, that rendered the whole less than the sum of its parts.   

The Dilettante’s Rating: 3/5

jb

For a perhaps more professional review of The Inheritance of Loss, see Natasha Walter’s Guardian review.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141027289

324 pages

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