Mitchell as in David Mitchell who wrote Cloud Atlas. Books as in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, which I’ve spent an unreasonable number of hours reading this last month. Marinus is a character in both. They are huge, beautifully written novels that will take you places you never could imagine and introduce you to people you’ll never forget. They’re also kind of flawed and sloppy; but you’ll have a hard time finding a better read among recent publications.
Thousand Autumns · It’s the turn of the nineteenth century in Dejima, the Dutch trading-post in Nagasaki harbor that Imperial Japan just barely tolerated for a couple of hundred years starting in 1643. Young De Zoet sails in, swelters amid the corrupt dead-enders and chancers and brutes of the Dutch East India company, does forensic accounting, finds love; then there’s a nasty American naval assault, then Jacob gets mixed up in a struggle against a shadowy monastery that may or may not be harvesting babies and whose abbot may or may not be six hundred years old.
If this sounds big and complicated and colorful and messy, well yeah. Mitchell has chosen a big wide canvas, and splashes on the color and flavor with glee. While Jacob is at the center of the stage — and he’s a guy you have to like — lots of the other players, Japanese and European, female and male, are worth getting to know and love; or loathe, depending.
The writing is astonishingly good, at multiple scales; small offhand details of sound and smell and light that put you right in nineteenth-century Nagasaki. And then there are the big set pieces that’ll have your heart pounding and in a couple of places, leave you dabbing at your eyes. In particular, the closing pages’ climactic seppuku-with-a-surprise and lovers’-farewell episodes are full of formal beauty and horror and sorrow. Even though the good guys sort of win.
Problems? Yeah, Mitchell is having so much fun showing us Dutch-East-India-Company life in Dejima that he kind of neglects to move the story along for a hundred pages here and there. And the weirdness at Enomoto’s nunnery feels a little tacked on. There are lots of horror-inducing examples of religious organizations exploiting women and children all through history not excluding today; so he really didn’t need to get sorcerous.
Anyhow, it’s a pretty wonderful book.
Bone Clocks · By clocks he means people of course, time is at the center of everything, it grows us and ages us and kills us, and David Mitchell has thought about that a whole lot. This book is an easier read than The Thousand Autumns and more fun too, even though its problems are bigger and dumber.
I can’t say enough good things about his protagonist Holly Sykes, whom we meet as a teenager in trouble and eventually part with as an ailing septuagenarian. She’s tough and nice and pragmatic and up against some really weird shit, and deals with it better than most of us could ever hope to. Can a fictional person be an inspiration? I think so.
This book isn’t stuck on a little island in a corner of Japan; Mitchell has the whole world to work with, and six decades starting in 1984, and boy does he ever have fun with it.
Once again, there’s That Writing. Mitchell has done a lot of things in a lot of places around the world, and he can take there in a paragraph and break your heart in a half-page.
One of the casually-virtuosic writing tricks is the multi-POV thing; Holly’s in all six episodes but only narrates two; the other four narrators are not all nice but I’m glad I met them.
This is a big book; over six-hundred dead-tree pages if you’re into that kind of thing. And not once did I ever have the slightest urge to put it down (I actually did once or twice in the first third of Thousand Autumns, glad I didn’t).
I’d like to offer a special shout-out to the closing section, set in 2043, which offers a pretty fresh take on the post-apocalyptic genre; all the bad things that people say about global warming have come true; plus the Internet is mostly broken. It’s horrifyingly plausible.
There are problems though…
Marinus · Yes, the same character appears in novels set 200 years apart, more or less. Which is to say, the sci-fi angle isn’t just a bolt-on here, it runs through the center of the story. And it’s sort of lame. I like sci-fi. I read sci-fi. I’m OK with novels that veer into the supernatural. But I want coherency and consistency; if you will, a theory of magic.
Which this doesn’t have. There are two species of immortals, nasty ones who revivify themselves with Black Wine distilled from the souls of harvested babies, and others who are just that way; some of them reincarnate after 49 days absence, others at the point of death. At the climactic magic battle, it’s all about focusing Psychosoteric Voltage through the Third Eye Chakra to Widen the Faith-Based Crack in the Chapel of the Mystic Cathar. Or something like that. I mean, it was still kind of fun, and Holly was there, but don’t expect many Hugo or Nebula votes.
Oh yeah, Marinus. He/she was one of the cooler people in The Ten Thousand Autumns but in this book, where she/he gets to narrate a section, is kind of your generic immortal.
But anyhow, in five of the six Bone Clocks episodes, the magic is just a handy plot facilitator casting an aura of menace; and the section where it dominates isn’t actually bad as such, just weak by contrast.
And did I mention that the writing is beautiful? And the characters compelling? And also, there are deep eloquent ideas explored, about aging and nations and stories and history and cruelty and love.
Anyone who likes good stories and good writing will like this I think.