Sceptre £18.99

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, By David Mitchell

A coruscating narrative of style and wit shows a twice Booker-shortlisted author still improving

Fans of David Mitchell, most of whom seem to have been the first to "discover" him when his brilliantly fresh and original Ghostwritten was published in 1999, have waited with some trepidation for this new novel. Two years after Ghostwritten, Mitchell proved his credentials with the wonderfully inventive number9dream. Three years on, he went one better with Cloud Atlas – a dazzling literary Möbius strip of a novel that secured his place as one of the best writers of his generation. Shortly afterwards came Black Swan Green – a straightforward, semi-autobiographical tale that was more like a typical first novel but much, much better. So, four years on, how can Mitchell possibly produce yet another book that is completely different again, and even better than the last?

On the face of it, a historical novel set on a remote Dutch trading outpost in Japan in 1799 would not seem the best place to start. But Mitchell plunges in with relish, giving us in the opening pages a midwife attempting to dismember an unborn child, a high-minded junior clerk having his nose spread across his face in a brawl, and a magnificent piece of slapstick involving a beautiful woman, a severed foot and a stream of monkey piss delivered as "a warm and liquid whiplash, smelling of roast beef, [flaying] his cheek".

The clerk is Jacob de Zoet, transported to the island of Dejima until he is rich enough to marry his fiancée, Anna, back home. The midwife is Orito Aibagawa, with whom he inevitably falls in love. In saving the child of a powerful official, she has earned the right to work and study on Dejima, an artificial microcosm where men of many nations meet and trade, separated from an insular Japan by its land gate, and from the rest of the world by about a million years. Women are forbidden, unless they are prostitutes. Christianity is outlawed. Even learning Japanese is against the rules, though Jacob's struggle to understand his distant hosts is a powerful theme. The traders own slaves, warehouses, islands and seas, considers one servant, and "yet they complain that Dejima is a prison".

In this claustrophobic crucible, Mitchell is free to unleash his talent. Genres merge and interact like the shimmering colours of a kaleidoscope. A folkloric quest swims to the surface of a love story; war games glimmer behind a Falstaffian exchange. All of this is shot through with imagery from Japanese art, studded with near-haiku: "Birds are notched on the low sky. Autumn is aging." "Marigolds in the vase are the precise shade of summer, remembered." In previous novels, Mitchell created multiple narratives brought together with aplomb. Here, one story contains multiplicities, woven together with golden thread.

Typically of Mitchell's novels, The Thousand Autumns... has a narrative in several voices. The translator, Ogawa Uzaemon, emerges from his position as a cipher and go-between to become a forceful, and then a tragic figure. Aibagawa, when she is taken by a sinister spiritual order in which women are drugged and "engifted" by monks, breaks free from the objectifications of the smitten De Zoet and shows with steel and pluck that she is her own woman. One wonderful, minor character is Marinus, the doctor: he stands for Science and Reason and as a Sensei, but he is no mere symbol. And the comic intervention of a gouty British sea captain brings levity, and then gravity, to proceedings in the final, breathless rush to a denouement.

The novel, obviously, is not perfect. By the end, I was still unable to distinguish with any certainty such an array of character names. It takes concentration. But it also repays it.

Mitchell is sometimes criticised because his novels never seem to mean anything. So what? "The belly craves food," says Orito, "the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories." Here, Mitchell gives us a world of stories in prose that brings a lump to the throat. He also gives us, in the prose-poem on page 441, one of the most thrilling single pages of any novel I've read.

His fans will open the novel feeling nervous of disappointment, yes. But then they will close it in tears and turn immediately back to page one to begin again. To them, I say: don't worry, dive in and lose yourself in a world of incredible scope, originality and imaginative brilliance. David Mitchell has done it again.

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit