It’s as difficult to put this novel down as it is to overestimate Mitchell’s virtually unparalleled mastery of dramatic...

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THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET

Another Booker Prize nomination is likely to greet this ambitious and fascinating fifth novel—a full-dress historical, and then some—from the prodigally gifted British author (Black Swan Green, 2006, etc.).

In yet another departure from the postmodern Pynchonian intricacy of his earlier fiction, this is the story of a devout young Dutch Calvinist (the eponymous Jacob) sent in 1799 to Japan, where the Dutch East India Company, aka the VOC, had opened trade routes more than two centuries earlier. But now the Company is threatened by the envious British Empire, which seeks to appropriate the Far East’s rich commercial opportunities. Jacob’s purpose is to acquire sufficient wealth and experience to earn the hand of his fiancée Anna. But his mission is to serve as a ship’s clerk while simultaneously investigating charges of corruption against the Company’s powerful Chief Resident. When a scandal involving the seizure of the much-desired commodity of copper is manipulated to implicate Jacob, he is posted to the artificially constructed island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, becoming a de facto prisoner of an insular little world of rigorously patterned and controlled cultural—and commercial—rituals. Meanwhile, the story of Aibagawa Orita, a facially disfigured (hence unmarriageable) midwife authorized to study with the Company’s doctor (the saturnine Marinus, a kind of Pangloss to Jacob’s earnest Candide), punished for having aspired beyond her station, and the moving story of her planned escape from servitude and reunion with the beloved (Uzaeman) forbidden to marry her (which contains deft echoes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ondaatje’s The English Patient), mocks, as it exalts, Jacob’s concealed love for this extraordinary woman. The story climaxes as British forces challenge the Dutch hold on the East’s riches, and Jacob’s long ordeal hurtles toward its conclusion.

It’s as difficult to put this novel down as it is to overestimate Mitchell’s virtually unparalleled mastery of dramatic construction, illuminating characterizations and insight into historical conflict and change. Comparisons to Tolstoy are inevitable, and right on the money.

Pub Date: June 29, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6545-5

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2010

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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