You don't have to look far to find fabulously positive reviews of David Mitchell's 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. (If you buy the paperback edition, they're all over the cover and take up the first several pages of text.) The Guardian loved it, as did the New York Times (twice) and nearly every other major paper. The review that interested me most, though, was a very brief one, in AudioFile magazine, about the audiobook version. The first sentence is as follows: "This utterly original and wildly satisfying new novel gets such a dazzling performance here that you are torn between wanting to know how it ends and hoping it never does."
Well, I was intrigued! As it happens, I already owned a copy of Jacob de Zoet, thanks to my friend Derick, who sent me a copy earlier this summer. He'd borrowed Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten, years ago, and when he was housesitting here in January, he read what is supposed to be Mitchell's masterpiece, Cloud Atlas. My own history with Mitchell is mixed. I enjoyed Ghostwritten (read on the train from Varanasi to Delhi in 2002) but never made it through the first section of Cloud Atlas. I am determined to be more patient and try it again, though, especially after Jacob de Zoet (which, apparently in some circles, is considered lesser Mitchell.)
There are many other places to read about the plot and themes of this novel. The thumbnail version is that it's set at the turn of the 19th Century in Japan, where the tiny island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki is the only point of contact between Shogun Japan and the rest of the world. Dejima serves as a trading outpost between the Dutch East India Company and Japan, and the Dutch merchants who live there are confined to the island. Enter Jacob de Zoet, a pious and upright young clerk, come to make his fortune so he can return home and marry his sweetheart. At first, Jacob is prized for his honesty, and then not so much. Betrayed by the Chief Resident who at first welcomes his attempts to straighten out years of corrupt dealings, then rejects them when he begins to enjoy the fruits of corruption himself, Jacob is left on Dejima when the chief leaves, demoted and seemingly destined to serve as the whipping post for the weaselly colleague who was promoted above him. But during his time in Dejima, Jacob has fallen rather hopelessly in love with Aibagawa Orito, a midwife given special dispensation to study on Dejima with the Dutch Dr. Marinus. Orito is bright and talented but disfigured by a burn to her cheek, making her seemingly unmarriageable.
In the second section of the book, Jacob is nearly absent, as the focus shifts to a sinister mountain shrine/nunnery where Orito has been brought (against her will) after her father's death. The narration of the story shifts between an attempt to rescue Orito and life in the house of sisters at the shrine.
The third section of the book returns to Dejima but also to the British frigate Phoebus and to its gouty, mourning captain. (It was at this point that I felt like I'd been flung, briefly and happily, into a cousin of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels.)
My temptation is to natter happily on about the plot, but that's not the point of this. I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed reading the book version, but I loved listening to the audio book version. Fat historical novels, when narrated well, turn out to be intensely pleasurable as audio books. The length and breadth mean that you can settle into the story in a different way. I learned that with the Patrick O'Brian books and again with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Both Patrick Tull (Patrick O'Brian) and Simon Prebble ( Jonathan Strange) are wonderful narrators, and Jonathan Aris, much younger than either, is a fabulous successor to them. I will not quibble that all the Dutch residents have (various) British accents. That the accents are so well done and the narration so seamless is enough. Paula Wilcox narrates Orito's sections, also very, very well.
The book started a bit slowly (for me), and it takes some time to learn the lay of the land, with the plethora of characters--Dutch and Japanese both--to become familiar with. But I felt that I was in good hands with both narrators, and as the book progressed and the plot thickened, it became hard to stop listening. I handed the CDs off to my friend Darnell once I was done, and soon thereafter, I received an email from his wife, my friend Leanna, which said the following: "D was so taken up with finishing Jacob DeZ that he refused all conversation last night and retreated to his chair, where he sat with headphone clamped on, absolutely rapt."
I'm not sure that there's higher praise than that. As for me, it's been weeks since I finished, and I still find myself thinking about it. I think of the plot twists, but I also think of the melancholy but satisfying final pages when Mitchell wraps up his story in the only way the novel reasonably could have ended. I spent 19 hours listening to Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox tell me the story of Jacob de Zoet and Aibagawa Orito and the rest, and it still wasn't quite enough. Better, of course, to end wanting more, but a bit sad all the same.
For more on Jacob DeZoet and on David Mitchell, here are a few links:
An article about Mitchell in the New York Times Magazine shortly before Jacob de Zoet came out.
This review in The Millions was one of my favorites.
The Written Nerd is a new blog to me (and one, it turns out that is now defunct), but I quite enjoyed her review as well.