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The Bone Clocks by David MitchellSoon there will be a game called David Mitchell Bingo. Kaleidoscopic narrative with multiple interlinked stories? Check. Characters from previous novels? Check. Wit? Check. Metafictional jokes? Check. Invention? Check. Genre leaps? Check. Future dystopia chapter? Check. Intricate plotting? Check. Entertainment? Check. Our interconnectedness? Check, check, check!

Although of a slightly different ‘flavour’, The Bone Clocks is structurally of the same mould as Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. It has six interlinked stories following the life of Holly Sykes, told in first person present tense by five different narrators, two by Holly herself and four by other people in her life. Each chapter is set in a different time period and setting. There’s Holly as a rebellious teen in Gravesend, Kent, in 1984; the deceitful Hugo Lamb in Cambridge University in 1991, who meets Holly in a Swiss ski village; the war-addicted reporter Ed Brubeck in 2004, childhood friend of Holly and now her husband and father to Aoife; the utterly delicious Crispin Hersey, a once successful author intent on taking revenge against his harshest critic in 2015; the Horologist Marinus in 2025 New York City, who in a previous incarnation treated Holly as a girl and now asks her for help; and finally Holly Sykes, living in the post-apocalyptic ‘Endarkenment’ in 2043 on the west coast of Ireland.

Threaded throughout is an underlying Science Fiction or Speculative Fantasy plot about a war between the immortal ‘Atemporals’, on one side the (good) ‘Horologists’, on the other: the (evil) ‘Anchorites’.  ‘Bone clocks’ is a term given to mere mortals like Holly by the Anchorites. The Horologists are pure immortals, either ‘sojourners’  or ‘returnees’, working to the ‘Script’; while the Anchorites are soul vampires, prolonging their lives by decanting the souls of children, which becomes the Dark Wine they drink every three months in the Chapel of the Dusk to stave off ageing. The Atemporals have all sorts of powers, including telepathy (‘subspeak’); ingressing into, and egressing out of, people’s bodies; freezing people through ‘hiatus’; redacting memories. The Anchorites can also summon the ‘Aperture’, a portal device. The Horologists failed in their ‘First Mission’, an attempt to destroy the Chapel of the Dusk and the Anchorites, and are preparing a second attack.

Still with me? There’s no doubting Mitchell’s storytelling ability. His narratives rollick along with three dimensional characters and intricate plotting. It’s all very entertaining. The bad boy of British letters, Crispin Hersey, with his cynical takedowns of other writers and critics at literary festivals, is an absolute scream. Living off the early success of Desiccated Embryos (Dead Babies by Martin Amis?!), he doesn’t mind referring to himself in the third person. His new novel, Echo Must Die, is ripped apart by critic Richard Cheeseman, who was once a friend in their Cambridge days. Cheeseman could be commenting on The Bone Clocks when he writes: ‘The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look’, and, ‘What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’ Crispin (and Mitchell?) counters with, ‘in publishing, it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre.’ These playful metafictional jokes are great fun.

There are interesting Australian influences in this location-hopping novel (the only continent we don’t go to is Antarctica). Crispin meets up with Kenny Bloke, a Noongar poet, loosely based, I suspect, on Kim Scott (whom Mitchell mentions in an interview section at the rear of the book, and whom Mitchell met at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2011). Crispin is trying to win the Brittan Prize, which sounds suspiciously like the Booker Prize because it has just been opened up to American authors. In The Bone Clocks, Nick Greek, a US author, wins! And Kenny Bloke thinks it was very well deserved. (I can’t decide whether ‘Kenny Bloke’ is a hilarious name for an Aussie author, or lazily demeaning!)

Crispin and Holly appear at the Hay Literary Festival, then run into each other at the Perth Writers’ Festival, and then again on Rottnest Island. Holly, whose spiritual memoir The Radio People became a bestseller, is able to tune into voices. And there are many voices on Rottnest Island. She tunes into the Noongar Aboriginal people, and I wondered what Kim Scott made of Mitchell writing as a Noongar ancestor being as Holly narrates:

Wadjemup, they called this island. Means the Place Across the Water. … For the Noongar, the land couldn’t be owned. No more than the seasons could be owned, or a year. What the land gave, you shared. … Whitefella ship us to Wadjemup. Chains. Cells. Coldbox. Hotbox. Years. Whips. Work. Worst thing is this: our souls can’t cross the sea. So when the prison boat takes us from Fremantle, our soul’s torn from our body. Sick joke. So when come to Wadjemup, we Noongar we die like flies. 

Not so for the immortal Anchorites, who recruit potential newcomers with this sales pitch:

What is born must one day die. So says the contract of your life, yes? I am here to tell you, however, that in rare instances this iron clause may be … rewritten.

Death and immortality is one of the key themes of The Bone Clocks. It is interesting that the oldest Horologist, now known as Esther Little, otherwise known as Moombaki, is a Noongar woman, who has lived for thousands of years. And the Horologists don’t go across the ‘Last Sea’ where the souls of dead bone clocks end up. It’s a nice echo of the Noongars’ Wadjemup history, and shows Mitchell is a thoughtful writer and plotter.

An adjunct of the mortality theme is a predacious theme, with both Anchorites and mortals eating future generations. The final story is set in the post-apocalyptic future, the so-called ‘Endarkenment’. There are electricity, food and medical shortages, ration boxes, security cordons, and the Chinese Pearl Occident Company (POC) rules everything it seems. (There have also been pandemics of ebola, a disturbingly prescient element given current events in West Africa.) When the POC removes support for the Irish ‘Lease Lands’, the jackdaws take over, with lawless chaos and an every-person-for-themselves mentality. The young look at the older generations, like Holly’s, as future eaters. It’s a bleak and terrifying future vision.

With Mitchell you’re often left feeling you’re reading several novels in one. That’s certainly true of The Bone Clocks. There are passages that add details that don’t seem necessary, in which you wonder whether he is paying attention to a minor character because he wants to use that character in a future story. More troubling, though, is the lingering question of what it all means.

After some thought, I’ve decided there is a serious point here, that of immortality gained through predation, of the rich and privileged eating the future. I enjoyed The Bone Clocks immensely, and I admire Mitchell’s writing. His legion of fans will love it. Fans of Murakami and China Mieville will love it, too.

But there are some cracks in the edifice. Mitchell burst on the literary scene with Ghostwritten, perhaps still his best, and certainly most cohesive, work.  It introduced us to his great unifying theme: interconnectedness. He talks of writing one giant ‘uber’ novel, and it’s great fun identifying the characters who have appeared in previous novels (characters from Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet appear here). The question is, if all his novels are based on this idea, will they all begin to sound alike? (I’m not hugely surprised The Bone Clocks did not make the Booker shortlist.)

Nevertheless, when the next Mitchell novel comes out, I’ll do what I did this time: run to the book store and rub my hands with glee at the expectation of the reading experience to come. I know it will be entertaining. And I’ll find out whether my David Mitchell Bingo idea has any legs or whether he surprises with something new.

There are plenty of Mitchell believers out there. Ursula Le Guin praised The Bone Clocks at the Guardian here.

Carolyn Kellogg loved it at the LA Times here.

James Wood offers a more circumspect assessment at the New Yorker here:

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

2014

Sceptre

595 pages

ISBN: 9780340921616

Source: purchased

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There have been many enjoyable reads this year.  The Boat by Nam Le got 2011 off to a great start with a collection of disperse and riveting ‘long’ shorts.  I then had the pleasure of re-visiting two of Peter Carey’s great novels in Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.  One of the standouts of the year was That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, winner of the Miles Franklin.  I thoroughly enjoyed David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten – so clever and absorbing, the way the inter-linkages worked was very impressive.  Then onto another debut novel, this time from an Australian, with Favel Parret’s wonderful Past the Shallows.  There was time for some great classics too, like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Later in the year I was thrilled and appalled by Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch – what a ride!  And speaking of rides, what a way to end the year with The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño: part road story, part loss of innocence, every part fantastic.  You can find the reviews of any of these by searching or by clicking on the tags at the end of this post.

What were your favourites this year?

As for 2012, I’m not about to go in for any challenges.  I just plan on reading more classics, both old – Anna Karenina – and more recent – Bolaño’s epic 2666.  And I shall keep abreast of some hot-off-the-press works.  Apart from that, I shall go where the wind takes me.

I hope you join me for future musings!

All the best for the new year.

John

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Gail Jones is a cerebral writer and a consummate wordsmith.  Talking at last month’s Sydney Writers Festival about her novel Five Bells she was asked whether the ‘literariness’ of a book is important to her.  Her reply was an unequivocal yes.  The Dilettante’s kind of writer!

Jones spoke about the genesis for the work.  She was on a late night ferry and the words of Kenneth Slessor’s famous poem, Five Bells, came to her.  The poem was written as an ode to cartoonist Joe Lynch, who fell from a Sydney ferry and whose body was never found.  Jones said she could well imagine the poem being written just after the event so immediate was its sense of grief, but noted it was written twelve years later.  The ‘persistence of grief’ is something that she finds quite powerful – ‘you think you’re done with it, but the past keeps coming back.’

The way grief and memory inform the lives of the four characters whose lives are drawn together on this single day in and around Circular Quay is the cornerstone of the book.  It is like, said Jones, the wake of a ferry – the way water is churned out and then eddies back in on itself, returning and revolving.  Time and memory operate in the same way.  Slessor himself, in his notes on his poem said that time was like water rather than the tick of the clock.  Pei Xing, one of the protagonists of the novel, recalls a day when, as a girl, her father told the story of The Overcoat, how that story adds to the memory of the day’s other events.  She thinks: “It was there, years later, like breath on a plane of glass, a human trace to see through.”

The wake of the ferry, the way memories fold back up to the surface of our life, form not just a thematic premise for the book, but they also form the basis for its structure.  Here is Jones’ cerebral mind at work.  The story starts out with the arrival of the four into Circular Quay on this sunny Saturday, then, like the ferry wake, folds back to their individual starting points that day, then comes back through the day in a lineal progression.  But always through this progression the memories of past events and backgrounds constantly churn to the surface.  It’s a wonderfully symbolic structure.  It works on its own, but knowing why she chose to fashion it in this way gives it extra meaning.

Of course when you write a story that takes place in one day, particularly one in which the poetry of the prose is a strong feature as it is here, then you immediately place your work alongside other great ‘single day’ works, such as Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.  To me the particularly poetic character of Jones’ prose sets it up against Mrs Dalloway quite markedly.  There are other links between them too.  The passage of time is central to both books.  ‘Five bells’ is one of the half-hour marks of an eight-bell-long four hour watch on ships.  In Mrs Dalloway we have Big Ben marking out the hours (which was Woolf’s original title for the book, so well utilised by Michael Cunningham in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours).  There are other similarities too, but I won’t go into those as that will risk others’ enjoyment of them, but Jones said she was aware of borrowing from those books.

The other thing that I remember from reading Woolf’s novel is just how vacuous and unsympathetic the characters in it are.  This brings me to the four protagonists in Five Bells, each of whom are new arrivals inSydney.  Two of the four, Elise and James, grew up for a time in the same class in school in remote country town inAustralia.  They were teenage lovers, and now, both inSydney, have agreed to meet up.  When they were in school they shared a teacher who wrote unusual words on the blackboard, one of which was ‘clepsydra’: an ancient water clock, again reflecting the confluence of time and water.  It’s their secret word, and it’s a lovely reflection of Slessor’s ‘time as water’ observation.

James is Jones’ first extended male point of view protagonist in any of her novels.  He is a man who cannot let go of his tragic past, a past that even Elise is unaware of.  Jones said she was keen to make sure he had some form of progression, some change throughout the day.  I think she manages this, albeit somewhat obliquely (more on obliqueness below), for he decribes himself as ‘unconnected’ at the start of the story, but by the end – without giving the game away – he is in a way very much connected to the others.

Then there is Catherine, an Irish journalist, who leftDublinin part because of the death of her heroine, Veronica Guerin, the real-life journalist assassinated after she revealed the truth about the drug trade inDublin.  Catherine is also struggling to cope, in her case with the death of her brother.  Jones said that writing often is generated out of a sense of loss.  We all lose people, places, childhoods, she said.  Jones is a great supporter of PEN, and wanted to pay tribute to the heroics of writers including journalists and translators.

The fourth protagonist, Pei Xing, is a Chinese immigrant, survivor of the Cultural Revolution.  Jones said she is the moral centre of the book, and it is easy to see why.  She travels from her home in Bankstown, across the harbour to visit someone from her past every Saturday, someone to whom she gives forgiveness when such forgiveness seems impossible.  Her scholarly parents were abducted and killed while she was young and she herself is later imprisoned.  Her father was an interpreter and there are many references to interpreters in the story, including many references to Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.  The theme of translation was something Jones wanted to portray as part of the way we all connect with each other, and, I believe, how we connect to ourselves.  Pei Xing’s ability to sense the future is used in a lovely way to offset the potential darkness in the story.

The four characters are drawn together by a fifth in an oblique way.  Jones said she wanted to study the resonances between people, those interconnections, in the same way that the peals of a bell reverberate and speak to one another – which seems spooky when I think that the very same thing was the theme of my last read: David Mitchell’s wonderful Ghostwritten (see my review here).  When we first meet James, he thinks, [p4]: “So much of the past returns … lodged in the bodies of others.”  The fifth character is a child.  Children are symbolic; each of us as adults carries the child within.

When asked by one audience member about the ‘lack of tension’ in the multi-protagonist structure, Jones said not all meaning lives in plot.  Switching between characters creates risk, she acknowledged, but ‘plot’ was not the most critical thing in the book.  I found each protagonist weighty enough to sustain my own interest.  Perhaps because I knew the symbolic underpinnings before I read the book I gave it a little more ‘room’ in this regard, but each of the characters has a depth to them.  They are sympathetic.  We care for them.  How Jones creates such depth in four characters in only 216 pages is to me a remarkable thing.

I have made mention of the poetic nature of the prose.  There are wonderful descriptions of the iconic Sydney Opera House andHarbourBridge, but particularly the white shells.  Jones eschewed the obvious ‘sails’ simile because ‘cliché is the enemy of good writing’.  She spoke of the need not only to be different, but also to develop images which were culturally relevant to the background of each character.  So for Pei Xing, the Opera House looks “like porcelain bowls, stacked one upon the other, fragile, tipped, in an unexpected harmony.”  James sees them as teeth, whose “maws opened to the sky in a perpetual devouring”.  Catherine sees them as petals of a white rose.  Elsewhere, the shells are described as a fan of chambers; meringue peaks; ancient bones; origami.

There are some lovely links between characters too, the things they see, the people, the music of a didgeridoo player.  There is also a recurring motif in the form of poeple waving to each other in greeting or farewell which I think is a subtle masterstroke – reflecting both the waves of the harbour’s water and the theme of connection between people.  It’s wonderfully done.

Following on from this are other echoes, most notably the use of some of the images of Slessor’s Five Bells.  Ellie thinks of ‘combs of light’ when she watches the ferries come and go at Circular Quay – an image used by Slessor.  There is also an echo of the wonderful line ‘ferry the moonfall down’.  And maybe there are others I have missed.  It is subtle and well done.

I said above that Jones is a wordsmith and part of the joy of reading Five Bells is in coming across unusual words, like: insufflation, susurration, brecciated, betoken, and so on.  There are also wonderful images, like an ‘apron of light’ spilling from a kitchen.  Wonderful.  Woolf would be proud.  There are perhaps a few instances where it didn’t quite hit the right note for me; Jones said she reads a lot of poetry and finds its ‘obliqueness’ attractive, and occasionally the images veered a little too much to the oblique rather than concrete.  Still and all, it is a minor quirk.

Five Bells is a highly enjoyable read.  It ponders in a deep, sensuous, and dare I say ‘resonating’ manner the connections and reverberations between people, the strength of memory and grief – how they alter lives, for better and for worse.

This is the first of a three-book run I’m taking on after attending another session on Sydney in which Gail Jones, Ashley Hay and Delia Falconer spoke about their love of Sydney and the interconnectedness of their books.  (See my musings on that SWF session here.)  Next up another multi-protagonist novel set in Sydney: The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay.

The Dilettante’s Rating: I’ve decided to stop giving marks for reviews.  It’s fraught with difficulties and is, in some ways I think, unfair to reduce a whole novel to a mere number, much as it is a neat idea.  I started using them because my musings tend to be long, so I wanted to give readers an opportunity for a snapshot view, but that, perhaps, perpetuates the sense of ‘reduction’ that I now want to avoid.  Let’s instead focus on words.  (I reserve the right to change my mind though – I’m a Libran after all!)

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Vintage

2011

ISBN: 9781864710601

216 pages

Source: purchased (and signed!) at SWF 2011

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What a great read!  Talking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week, the very humble and witty David Mitchell said that he is interested in interconnectedness.  When writing Ghostwritten, his first novel, a collection of nine ‘long’ stories, he said he started out with the first three or so as separate entities and it was only after these that he recognised teh true character of the novel he was writing and started to see the connections between characters and use recurring motifs.  He said he was interested in the question of how and why things happen.  The stories offer numerous possible answers, including chance, fate, luck, God, mistakes, the ghost in the machine.  Mo Muntervary, the protagonist of ‘Clear Island’, thinks [p375]:

Phenomena are interconnected regardless of distance, in a holistic ocean more voodoo than Newton.

The risk with multi-protagonist novels is that one (or more) of the characters lacks something that the others have, that their stories are not of equal quality.  Well, there’s no danger of that here.  The nine stories take us around the world, from the Orient and Mongolia to Petersburg, then Ireland, London and New York.  Each has vitality, linkages, humour, and tragedy.

Mitchell’s fascination with interconnectedness extends beyond this book too – with characters showing up in more than one book.  One of the things he said with regard to this practice was that he does it in part to amuse himself.  One of the joys of this book for us readers is that we can see those moments and share in them.  This extends from the more obvious questions of how does one character fit in another’s story, down through ‘mid-level’ recurrences such as notions of physics, and all the way to motifs which reappear, such as camphor trees, comets, quasars or Kilmagoon whiskey.  As a reader, part of the fun is in those moments of frisson when you become aware or spot another link.

One of the slight misgivings I had with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was that some of the descriptions of ‘place’ seem disconnected or just ‘dropped in’.  There is no evidence of that here.  The descriptions of the cities like Okinawa, Tokyo, Hong Kong and London are vivid and grounded.  Having lived in London, I particularly liked the way Mitchell links the web of suburbs into the narrative (by the sexual conquests of a writer named Marco no less!).  Some other descriptions of setting are imaginative, for example the old Battersea power station described as an upturned table.  The way Mitchell depicts the passage of time in Tokyo through the cherry blossoms is wonderful.  Then they fall thus, [p60]:

The last of the cherry blossom.  On the tree, it turns ever more perfect.  And when it’s perfect, it falls.  And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up.  So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air … I think that only we Japanese can really understand that, don’t you?’

There’s loads of witty moments too.  Writers are not to be trusted, thinks one character, because they make everything up.  Another character has received a postcard from a friend with a photo of Earth, on which he has written, ‘wish you were here.’  In a lovely description of the forces of physics, gravity is described as being ‘the most down to earth’!  And Schrödinger the cat ‘looks around hypercritically.’

It’s really hard to pick the best of them.  Even the Mongolia chapter, which seemed to sag ever so slightly in the middle, came with such a kick ending that you soon forget any quibbles.  I loved the ‘Clear Island’ chapter, the story of quantum physicist Mo Muntervary, whose brilliant technology has found its way into smart bombs.  She tries to resign but the firm she works for won’t let her.  She goes on the run, escaping back to the island off the coast of west Ireland where she was born and raised.  The way things end up for Mo is spellbinding.  ‘Night Train’, the final of the nine stories, (before a short capstone chapter), is hilarious, with the mysterious caller to Bat Segundo’s late night radio show in New York.  The way Bat assists ‘Zookeeper’ as the person calls themselves in deciding what to do with the animals in the zoo is breathtaking.

AS Byatt proclaimed Ghostwritten to be “the best first novel I have ever read.”  High praise and warranted.  If you haven’t read it yet, make a bee-line for it.  David Mitchell at his best.  Superb.

(The notion of interconnectedness came up elsewhere at SWF 2011: I’m now off to read Gail Jones’s Five Bells which sees the lives of four adults come together in Circular Quay on a single day, and after that I’ve lined up The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay, which is also set in Sydney and links three separate characters across time in a rather unusual way: stay tuned!)

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Sceptre

1999

ISBN: 9780340739754

436 pages

Source: the local municipal library

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Session #109: The Thousand Styles of David Mitchell

Geordie Williams who was in conversation with David Mitchell introduced the session by saying that it was the one that sold out the quickest of all sessions at this year’s SWF. 

Daivd Mitchell is well known for his varied styles, the great shifts he has between each in terms of form, setting, and themes.  He actually started by giving us a reading of a short story that was just over 900 words long, called An Inside Job.  It was a measure of his skill that so much story was packed into such a short length. 

David talked about why it is that he seeks a departure from what has come before when he writes a new novel.  He said if something is the same it has been done, so why do it again?  That being said, there are common threads through his novels in the form of characters who pop up in more than one book.  Perhaps this should come as no surprise given that Ghostwritten, his first ‘book’, is a series of 9 inter-weaving narratives in which characters pop up in different stories, even if in oblique ways.  (I’m just about through Ghostwritten and it is a lot of fun; the links are both obvious and more subtle, but they are all fun – it’s like finding a little gem in a field of rubble and when you see the links and how the characters fit together it gives you a little thrill.) 

David talked about the the five elements of a novel: plot, character, themes/ideas, structure, and style.  (He made an interesting aside here when he said that someone had once asked him about ‘place’ – and he said that he felt it present but not a main element of the overall scheme.  It is interesting to me that in my reading of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the descriptions of place seemed to be ‘dropped in’ and did not quite have the same ‘grounding’ in place as say Tim Winton, or many other Australian authors.  Having said that, some of his sense of place in Ghostwritten is very good, the ‘London’ story, for instance, had great descriptions in it and covers a lot of the city.) 

Style is an ellusive thing for Mitchell.  Part of writing a novel is working out what style the novel wants to be written in.  Always, the narrative – the sense of story – is the most important thing. 

He gave a very funny account of the challenges of writing historical fiction in terms of getting the language / dialogue right.  Language is the tricky thing, he said, you can’t win.  He read a lot of old authors to ‘ingest’ the period language, such as Smollett Fielding Richardson, and wrote for six months and had something that was ‘perfect’ but was baiscally ‘Blackadder’!  Go the other way to being too modern and you sound like Seinfeld.  You need to find the least worst option, waht he calls ‘Bygone-ese’ – ‘how we think they talk back when if we don’t think too much!  Then there’s all the different Bygoneese he needed: for Dutch, English, Japanese, for high-class, ‘oinks’ and so on.  So it was a lot of work.  Four years work. 

He’d always been interested in Dejima – the ‘catflap’ between two worlds, how there was extreme xenophobia on the one hand in Japanese closing off the outside world, but also how they knew the Dutch brought with them all sorts o fwonderful things, which can be encapsulated in the ‘Enlightenment’. 

He spoke briefly about Black Swan Green his book prior to Jacob but not in any great detail, saying that he and the narrator share quite a lot of DNA. 

The best stuff for an author is found ‘stuff’.  Those things you can’t make up.  The place you’re in seeps into you and informs your writing.  He’s very interested in the sense of interdependence, again not surprising considering his practice of using characters more than once.  He spoke about how this is not a new idea of course, Shakespeare had Falstaff appear in more than one play and it makes our understanding of The Merry Winves of Windsor because we know what happens to him in King Henry IV.  The reasons he likes doing this is one, because it amuses him – and there are many moments in his writing where it is clear to us as readers that he is having a lot of fun (as we are too) – and, second, because it transfers ‘concreteness’ from one story to another, i.e., it transfers a sense of reality from story to story.  He was asked why he hadn’t done it for Jacob but answered that he had!  There are four examples of this transferrence, two of which he forgot.  One is a sea Captain who appears at the end, and another is a cat that was also in Black Swan Green(!) 

Mitchell has a great sense of humour and though at times I felt Geordie Williamson might not have got the best out of him today, there are of course only so many minutes in an hour and it was still a lot of fun and very interesting.   

That’s it for Friday.  Bring on Saturday! 

The D! 🙂

Note: comments are of course welcome but as they are moderated it will take me a little while to approve them.  Thanks…

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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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