Showing a pre-publication copy (thanks, Jason!) to a friend, I surprised myself a little by saying “Greatest living author.” My wife is fond of pointing out how fatuous such pronouncements are (thanks, Mary!), but I maintain they’re for the sake of discussion, not objectively verifiable claims.
David Mitchell, 41, has only written five novels, but they show enormous range, from the astonishing metafictional fireworks of Cloud Atlas, to Black Swan Green, his character-driven, semi-autobiographical story about growing up in Thatcherite England. Mitchell, who lived in Japan for eight years, sets this novel in 1799, where the Dutch monopoly on trade with the Japanese is being threatened by the English. Clerk Jacob de Zoet, a rare honest man in the Dutch East Indies Company, falls in love with a disfigured midwife, who is exiled to a sinister nunnery, by a warlord whom Jacob has angered.
At once a love story, a political thriller, and an eye-opening historical novel (The Dutch had a monopoly with the Japanese?), the book carries enough detail to make a very alien time and place seem familiar. Detailed characters. Gorgeous prose. Surprising plot twists.
Greatest living author? Maybe.