So where to start?
The expression “best at the beginning” may not apply in the case of David Mitchell’s (entirely brilliant) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoett, which opens with the graphic narration of a breech birth. Putting visceral reactions aside, in this vivid first chapter Mitchell expertly lays out the thematic questions of the novel – a dizzying array of concerns from national, linguistic, familial, class and gender filiation and affiliation to the worth of artistic or generous sensibilities in a landscape of commerce and rigidly defined hierarchies of (gendered, military, national) power.
At times I wondered whether the thematic scope might in fact be too broad – the harrowing second part focused on the mysterious monastery, for instance, felt barely introduced before it was over – but I need not have worried so much, as the concluding two parts – a brief 30 pages between the two – weave the (until then seemingly distinct) threads together with such subtly that I worried instead that I had may have been an inattentive reader (I was not!) for not noticing the ever-tightening connections among the three principle plot lines. So bravo theme. Bravo plot.
I have questions about character. It is not the case of a poorly defined or undeveloped character; in Jacob, like Black Swan Green, Mitchell presents entirely fallible, and so entirely sympathetic, characters. Rather, I found Orito’s behaviour to be – in two remarkable scenes – somewhat at odds, and so I finished the book not entirely certain I believed her motivations, or understood the ‘core’ of character: I’m trying reconcile her self-preserving decision in relation to Jacob’s marriage offer with her selfless decision with respect to the monastery. *spoiler* In the conclusion of the text, when Orito explains to Jacob that he need not be forgiven because ‘he did nothing wrong,’ she implies that her knowledge of what happened at the monastery prevented her from leaving – a moral/ethical imperative that superseded her – utterly human – selfish motivation to leave. In conversation with P., who recommended the book, it was suggested that perhaps she acts out of some ‘martyr complex.’ Plausible, and so far, so good: outstanding character development and a fascinating moral question (would I save myself? would you?). But then! Almost as though Mitchell can’t stand to have Orito suffer, she finds on her return that she can trade her knowledge for different duties, and so escape the fate of those she purportedly sacrificed her liberty to be with. Orito’s decision and its subsequent ‘reward’, taken together with the (quite positive) outcome of Jacob’s ‘heroics’ on the watchtower suggest an implicit reward for selflessness, which I’m pretty sure annuls “selflessness.” Or maybe it just suggests that behaving with selfless intentions will result in unexpected reward. (I hear echoes of my time in Sunday school…) In any case, none of these comments should be construed as complaints; in fact, I think it’s clear that my difficulty reconciling the scenes and character decisions demonstrates the complexity of the narrative and its characters. And maybe also demonstrates that I’ve just finished it an hour ago and haven’t (necessarily) properly thought things through.
A final note then on historical fiction. The Publisher’s Weekly review of the book notes that it is a “dense and satisfying historical with literary brawn and stylistic panache.” If I can forgive “panache,” in that sentence, I cannot forgive the implied snub of historical fiction – that Mitchell has managed to attach “literary brawn” (whatever that is) to the otherwise merely “satisfying” genre. Okay, I’m too defensive. But this book is as brilliant as historical fiction as it is as literary fiction (again, let’s try to work out what that might be another day) and we need not get into genre splitting to say that. I do think Jerome de Groot’s observation that historical fiction requires a more ‘attentive reader’ because the genre demands a doubled willingness to suspend belief and to trust the author has some merit in this instance. I admit to previously enjoying only the shadowiest knowledge of early 19th century Dutch trading companies, let alone their Japanese outposts, and so the novel allowed me a measure of discovery not just of human motivations, relationships and sacrifices, but of a historical period and setting utterly unfamiliar. So while Mitchell may not be credited with the brilliant complexity of my favourite genre, I’ll say bravo anyway, as he’s done a tremendous job highlighting just how effective a relationship between the literary and the historical can be in evoking and provoking.
In sum: bravo.