David Mitchell's Brilliant Misstep

Article excerpt

Byline: Louisa Thomas

The pain in Jacob's nose suggests a breakage, but the stickiness on his hands and knees is not blood. Ink, the clerk realizes, hauling himself upright.

Ink, from his cracked ink-pot, indigo rivulets and dribbling deltas--

Ink, drunk by thirsty wood, dripping between cracks--

Ink, thinks Jacob, you most fecund of liquids--

Certainly, this is true of the ink that flows from David Mitchell's pen. Mitchell, 41, has already written so much, so well: futuristic tales in Ghostwritten, pitch-perfect genre novellas in Cloud Atlas, semi-surrealism in Number9Dream, the sweet and almost painfully smart coming-of-age story Black Swan Green, and now the historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell's huge new book centers on a young Dutch clerk who, in 1799, arrives in Dejima, the artificial island and isolated Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor, and on a midwife, Orito Aibawaga, with whom Jacob falls in love. The book moves between their two stories, undulating like the sea or the oscillating style of Mitchell's prose.

Like Jacob, nailed on the nose with an ink pot during a fight, a reader would be forgiven for mistaking Mitchell's ink for blood. His grace notes bewitch with casual power: the "oyster of phlegm" spat onto a man's shoe; the way an approaching storm "bruised" the daylight. Except for a few moments of lull, the plot moves quickly and playfully, warmed with sentiment. Virtuosic and ultravivid, the book is like a strange and shimmering dream. And yet, as in the moment of waking, the reader is left with a sense of simultaneous wonder and disappointment. What seems at first to be such fertility, an overabundance of life, turns out to be weirdly sterile. One looks for a beating heart and finds an ink pot.

On the face of it, this criticism might seem grossly unfair. …