One of the many pleasures of reading a David Mitchell novel is that you never know what to expect. No two novels of his resemble each other in form or genre — and he has written five. Each is so dissimilar from the other that you wonder whether they came from the same pen.
His third and arguably the best novel, Cloud Atlas, is proof of this English novelist's extraordinary eclecticism. A work of astonishing architectural complexity, it used a variety of genres — including epistolary, bedside yarn, journal, and pulp fiction — to create six loosely connected and incomplete narratives which then are related in reverse order to form a surprisingly satisfying whole. The novel explores a vast geographical and historical canvas as the narratives move from the mid-19th century New Zealand, to places such as Belgium, California, and Korea, before ending in the distant future in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.
His next novel, Black Swan Green, couldn't have been in a more striking contrast — an unabashedly realist and semi-autobiographical look at a year in the life of a 13-year-old boy who grows up in a Worcestershire village.
And his latest and keenly-awaited fifth work — The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — is cast in the form of a conventional historical novel with a single narrative thread. If Mitchell returns to anything, it is Japan, where he lived and taught for almost a decade and where his first novel Ghostwritten begins and his second number9dream is set.
Set in Dejima, a man-made island off Nagasaki that was used by the Dutch as a trading post in the late 18th century, Mitchell's story follows a young and honest Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet, who is strikingly different from his corrupt and avaricious countrymen on the island.
While his intelligence and incorruptibility give him a certain strength and independence, de Zoet carries a secret that he knows could compromise and undermine him — his love for a Japanese midwife Orito Aibagawa. Jacob manages to prevail over the drunken and brawling fellow Dutchmen but could not prevent the feudal grandee Abbot Enomoto from spiriting Aibagawa away to a prison for women that masquerades as a nunnery.
The narrative picks up a full head of steam after Aibagawa is kidnapped and taken to the House of Sisters. The rescue attempt, the intrigue and plotting, the discovery of a secret scroll read like a knife-edged thriller. But the energy dissipates into a storyline that moves gently and less single-mindedly towards a beautiful and self-consciously anti-climactic end.
Mitchell weaves his research deftly, and almost invisibly, into the narrative, taking us through the action rather than telling us; descriptions are almost always short and pithy and sometimes startling. “The wind passes through the Flag Square, soft as a robe's hem.” “A gibbous moon is grubby.” “From the doorway comes a funerary mantra and a tendril of incense.”
The novel consolidates Mitchell's reputation as possibly the most versatile and one of the finest novelists of his generation. He has received his share of literary awards, but inexplicably not his due from the Man Booker Prize, which did not shortlist The Thousand Autumns… after putting it on the longlist.
Given the contenders for this year's prize, this is almost as big a lapse as 2004, when that formidable marvel of a book, Cloud Atlas, was passed over in favour of Alan Holinghurst's In the Line of Beauty, a genial but unexceptional farce about gays.