So I was a big fan of Cloud Atlas. Loved the unique plots going on in each of the five sections, their subtle interwoven narratives. Loved how David Mitchell didn’t just write five different stories in one, but wrote deftly in several different genres and, extraordinarily, kept it all straight in his and my mind. In fact, that book convinced me that Mitchell is a genius. I really loved the first two stories in Cloud Atlas especially: “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” and “Letters from Zedelghem.” However, it appears that I was possibly the only one. At least the overwhelming majority of reviewers, bloggers and friends and family I’ve discussed the matter with found Adam Ewing’s chapter boring, written as it was in the eloquent style of the mid -9th Century.
If that was your opinion of Cloud Atlas, then I would caution you against reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It is set in the Dutch East India outpost of Nagasaki, Japan in 1799, so nearly the same era as Adam Ewing. While Mitchell abandons the erudite language of Adam Ewing’s Pacific Journal and writes in a much more approachable style, there is still plenty of era-appropriate swindling, a familiar (if multiplied) cast of dishonest, dastardly vilains, and just as much beating up on our beloved, flawed, honest-to-a-fault hero. If that’s not your cup of tea, then my advice is to take a pass on this one.
However, fans of Master and Commander, Memoirs of a Geisha and Yukio Mishima take note. A Thousand Autumns delivers adventure (in both the European naval and Japanese samurai varieties), forbidden cross-cultural romance, tragedy as only real life accounts from the Age of Empire can inspire, and some sad but realistic truths.
Reading back on my notes from A Thousand Autumns,
I’m remembering how contemplative and tragic it all felt, especially the ending. Yes, there are moments of grace when, after all the double-dealing and selling each other out, finally a vilain’s heart wins out. Yes, there is justice and vengeance. But there is, at the end, the pervasive suggestion that Mitchell seems to make that no one is in control of his own destiny. They are all flotsam and jetsam tossed about on the capricious seas of 19th Century politics, class warfare and social sparing.
Isn’t that bleak? Also, the implication that one brief encounter, a promise made and unwittingly broken, essentially an attempt to ensnare one’s own future happiness, can backfire and have unimaginable repercussions, back from which even an honest man can never climb.
Mitchell poses the question: Can a person ever successfully seek out happiness when that particular form of it is deemed untouchable by the powers that be? Can you reach your hands into a fire and not get burnt?
I’ve made it sound awfully bleak, which it is and isn’t. It is also a rollicking good page turner, more evidence of Mitchell’s unquestionable genius (though The Thousand Autumns it is not always as cohesive as Cloud Atlas), and a journey to another world in another time and place that would make a fantastic summer read on a plane or, better yet, a boat. (Can you tell I still have travel reading on the brain?)
Readers, I’d love to know your honest opinion: are you a fan of David Mitchell or not so much? Have you read Cloud Atlas or The Thousand Autumns? Will you?