Thursday, 18 August 2011

More historical novels David Mitchell please

[Posting more regularly has not gone entirely to plan so far, but I hope to put up something every couple of days from now on...]

In some ways this excellent novel is a departure from David Mitchell's usual stuff; in other ways, not at all. Having read everything else he's published so far (except number9dream, which is also set in Japan) I was fairly confident that I knew what to expect, and yes, it's all there; the idiosyncratic style, the stylistic fireworks (although they're a little less flashy here; in retrospect, a lot of Cloud Atlas was very sophisticated showing-off, which is not necessarily to criticise it - literary fiction could do with a bit more intelligent, fun, classy showing-off) and the large and sometimes confusing cast of vivid characters.

But then it parts ways. First and foremost, this is a historical novel, and although certain of the historical aspects might be called into question - I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the early nineteenth century, but it struck me that Mitchell was more interested in big, bombastic storytelling than strict accuracy - this sets it apart from the rest of his work from the start, except perhaps for the small section of Cloud Atlas that is the 'Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing'. Secondly, it has a great narrative drive, which is not something I've really found in his other books - they're readable, certainly, but not page-turners. And it turns out that Mitchell writing page-turning historical fiction is really quite fantastic. I had the impression (which may be wrong, as I haven't been keeping a close eye on reviews) that the reception of this novel was quite muted in the press, especially when it wasn't shortlisted for the Booker, but I'm going to step up and say that it might be his best yet (OK, a quick Google establishes that the Guardian at least agrees with me).

The book falls essentially into two sections - Jacob and Orito - and on first glance the most gripping story is told in the middle part of the book, which deals with Japanese midwife Aibagawa Orito and her imprisonment in a bizarre shrine where she gradually learns the horrific fate that awaits her and the other Sisters. This is certainly where the novel becomes most unputdownable, but I can't help thinking that The Thousand Autumns of Aibagawa Orito would have been a little shallow by itself. Not because Orito is under-developed as a character in the slightest, but because the horrific-cult-imprisonment story has been told before, and more specifically, it's been told before by Mitchell in the 'Orison of Somni' section of Cloud Atlas. To go too closely into the similarities between the two would be to spoil both stories, but they were immediately obvious to me. Apart from Orito and Jacob, another standout character is the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, who gets a sub-thread of his own, but this is essentially part of the Orito narrative, and so doesn't offer much balance.

This is where we need the framing narrative of the book, that of Jacob de Zoet, unfortunately-honest clerk for the Dutch East India Company in 1799. Jacob is not as immediately compelling a character as Orito, but he certainly has his moments. His adventures are a mismatch of foiling corruption within the Company, brief encounters with Orito before her imprisonment, horrific experiences with eighteenth-century medical practice, and a final showdown when the British sail into Dejima, and hence form a panorama of different impressions of the trading port during this period. I also appreciated the light and subtle touch that Mitchell brought to the brief thread of his relationship with Anna, whom he left behind in the Netherlands to make his fortune in trade so he might return and marry her. The less-than-a-sentence that wraps up Anna's story in the final pages of the book is heartbreaking, and proves that Mitchell isn't only good at flashy writing. A brief note on the ending itself, without giving anything away - I can appreciate that some readers might have found it unsatisfying, but I liked the looseness of it, and the fact that Mitchell didn't draw in the connections between the two halves of the book too tightly, while linking them together sufficiently that it doesn't feel like two stories in one. My only query would be that I wish we could have seen the conclusion to Orito's story, rather than its being recounted by hearsay.

If I had a criticism of the book, it would be that I struggled to follow many of the Dutch and Japanese characters, who are often referred to by first or last name depending on whose company they are in - but then I realised that the proper edition of the book has a character list, which my proof copy lacked. I think this would have been a big help, so won't mark it down too much for the confusion. At first, I also thought I would have preferred more description of Nagasaki and the other locations in the novel, but by the end, I found I had formed my own impression of the port without a great amount of information, and was glad to have skipped the carefully-researched historical scene-setting we usually get. Overall, this is a brilliant read, and Mitchell's take on the historical genre is truly refreshing. More please!

No comments:

Post a Comment