Set on Dejima, the fan-shaped artificial island that housed and hid foreign traders from an isolationist Japan, David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns follows the Dutchman De Zoet as he fumbles his way through love, some dodgy company accounts, and a fair amount of dark magic.
Perhaps a reflection of what is happening around them on a much larger scale, it is the Westerner De Zoet’s sudden yet unrequited desire for a wise and scarred Eastern midwife, Orito, that sets the plot (and, one can believe on reading this increasingly eerie novel, the massive smoke-shrouded cogs of some ancient form of Eastern mysticism) in motion.
De Zoet moves between a mundane island existence and the court—and brothels—of a not-quite-translated Nagasaki, until a regrettable decision sends both Orito and the reader into the cold and hostile forests, to a fortress shrine whose sinister practices slowly unravel, the effect of which reverberates back to Nagasaki.
Fan of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten may initially be disappointed by the linear structure of Thousand Autumns, but it would be a short-lived disappointment; the author’s stunning wordplay, coupled with thorough research, will leave the reader dazzled by, and ever so slightly aghast at, how a mind like Mitchell’s must work.
Having received the long-list nod from the Man Booker judging panel, we will just have to wait and see what’s next for De Zoet’s Japan or rather, as Mitchell much more romantically puts it, his Thousand Autumns.