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Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

Half the size of a football field, its curved shape resembling a fan, the man-made island of Dejima once nestled in Nagasaki Harbour. From the 17th century through to the middle of the 19th, Dejima housed the only Westerners permitted inside cloistered, shogun-era Japan. Fifteen or so Dutchmen resided there at any moment, and they were not even allowed to cross a footbridge into the city. Nor were more than a handful of Japanese translators, medical students and courtesans let onto this "foreign" isle.

Dejima was a historic pinhole through which the West could glimpse the East, and vice versa. That it was claustrophobic and constricted, a perspective further narrowed by language impediments, makes it all the richer a setting for a story of unstable, awkward "contact" between these once presumptive polar opposites of human societies.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the fifth novel by British writer David Mitchell, opens on a deceptively optimistic note. A Japanese midwife, trained by a Dutch doctor who resides on the island, oversees the difficult breech birth of the baby of a local magistrate's wife. Local custom has it that a breech is evidence the baby's spirit is not ready for the world; best to let it die. But her training in Western medicine encourages her to find a solution. The child survives.

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Orito Aibagawa is the midwife's name, and she is soon the distant love interest of young Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk who has signed on for five years with the failing Dutch East India Company in the hope of satisfying the family of a wealthy fiancée back home. Though they sense it only intuitively, Jacob and Orito are actually a good match: bright and progressive, partly liberated from their respective cultural prejudices, and each one outcast by a blemish, Jacob by his carrot hair, Orito by a burn mark on her cheek.

But in 1799, the year Jacob de Zoet opens, there is no possibility for such a union. He is preoccupied with surviving the venality and ignorance of his fellow Western interlopers, including the emerging rivals in Empire, the British; she is at the mercy of the feudal dictates of her culture, which allows women to be treated like cattle. Dejima is a prison for the resident Dutch, but so is Japan for most of its citizens, and all its women.

Mitchell ... moves with apparent effortlessness from perspective to perspective

Mitchell's previous novel, 2006's autobiographical Black Swan Green, struck many as an intentional dialling down from the soaring ambitions and technical dazzle of his first three books, most notably the luminous Cloud Atlas. If structural brilliance, literary ventriloquism - "the man of a thousand voices," he was recently dubbed in the British press - and sheer prose density and verve are fair measures, then Mitchell's reputation as the most gifted of his generation of novelists is well founded.

Jacob de Zoet lies in between the sprawling, mind-altering Cloud Atlas and the controlled, sensitive Black Swan Green. It is a straightforward historical novel, told chronologically and in vivid present tense. Mitchell, who recreates entire worlds with such ease one could be forgiven for assuming that he time-travels to them, and then returns to report on what he has observed and heard (in multiple tongues), moves with no less apparent effortlessness from perspective to perspective.

Jacob's point of view dominates early on, but there are scenes set among the Japanese themselves, including sequences in a remote mountain nunnery where women are imprisoned as sex slaves. A thrilling narrative shift in Jacob de Zoet centres around that nunnery, and the novel moves away from its should-be lovers, widening out to address the emerging global politics of 19th-century imperialism. How it reconciles them in the elegiac final pages is beautiful and despairing, a quiet, perfect note on which to end.

That ending, a string of failures of "contact," with the disappearance from history of the story's protagonists as certain as the vanishing of Dejima itself, is deeply felt. Often overlooked by admirers of Mitchell's daunting formal skill is the humanism, empathetic and moral, that informs his fiction. An English naval captain endures an outbreak of gout while he attempts to do his empire's bidding in Nagasaki Bay, affecting his decisions; a Japanese magistrate, learning of an unspeakable cruelty going unchecked, ends it in the only way possible - by sacrificing his own life.

In Cloud Atlas, the theme of predation, the tendency of organisms to prey upon each other to mutual ruination, unified the six separate narratives. In Jacob de Zoet, this preoccupation is evidenced in the careful construction of the various small, overcrowded prisons - islands, nunneries, ships, homes - inside of which the characters must operate. "Why must all things," the same gout-ridden captain laments, "go around in stupid circles?"

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A writer as naturally curious, generous and able to translate an acute perceptivity to, and wonder at, the natural world as David Mitchell isn't likely to produce a hushed, low-key novel. For some, Black Swan Green was even a little muted: Mitchell with the volume kept too low on his singular voice - or, rather, his glorious voices. Though direct in its storytelling, Jacob de Zoet marks a return to full amplitude. That means occasionally over-long scenes and one or two rambling monologues. But it also guarantees fiction of exceptional intelligence, richness and vitality.

Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's biography of Mordecai Richler, Mordecai: The Life and Times, will be published this October.

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