There is an art to consuming a cup of coffee, particularly if it is the first of the day, when your sleep-fuzzed brain and sluggish muscles yearn for the rush of caffeine. Drink it too quickly, you will burn your tongue and throat and negate the pleasure of its rich warmth curling thickly through your blood. Drink it too slowly and it will cool to a flaccid, bitter memory of what coffee could be.
Reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is like consuming that first, vital coffee of the day (I dedicate my very terrible simile to the Dutch, who created the modern stock market, based on the coffee trade in the century before the setting of this novel). If you rush headlong into the adventure, looking for the jolt of plot twists and intrigue, you will miss the nuances of tone and color that ripple through Mitchell’s narrative as the points of view and settings change. If you go too slowly, you will lose the heat of the mystery and its complicated cast of characters. But by reading carefully and allowing Mitchell’s pacing to steady the hand that is trembling for its narrative fix, you will emerge deeply satisfied.
If you have read any professional reviews of this book, you have been pounded over the head by the reminder that Mitchell has written a straight-on historical fiction. As if it wasn’t evident in Mitchell’s previous works that he is a master of historical details of language, tone, setting and weaving fact through his fantasy. In this instance, he lands us in Nagasaki Harbor alongside Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch clerk seeking his fortune as a member of the Dutch East Indies Company. As the 18th century comes to an end, Japan is still a nation of samurai and daimyo, determined to remain closed to foreigners. The Dutch outpost of Dejima, an artificial island in the port of Nagasaki, is the one remaining Western foothold in this land of mist and shadows.
That is the initial setting of the story. Where Mitchell takes you I won’t reveal- you’ve got to invest the time and energy into your own exploration. But read as carefully as the author has written. There is exquisite language that is a luxury to read and there are detours that frustrate until you realize you are happily lost and willing to stay the course because you trust the roads will all meet up again.
There is a secret delight at the start of a certain chapter in the final pages of the books that will have you weak with wonder at the magic of words.
I may return to give this a final, fifth star. I considered early in the novel that I was continuing on only because it was David Mitchell- there is some clunkiness that made me drag my heels and even set it aside for a couple of days. But as I continued to read, I realized I had to set aside my tendency to devour instead of savor. In the end, it was good to the last drop.