Let me apologize up front for not writing about President Kennedy today. I figure others will pick up the slack. I need to write about a book.
I’d love to sum it up in a pithy, “Two words for ya–” but unfortunately, this book has a MOUTHFUL of a title. Ready?
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell.
Normally my “can’t-put-it-down” books are mysteries–especially ones by Elizabeth George. But this literary novel has me in its clutches, and not for the usual reasons.
Oh, it’s got the goods all right. Sympathetic hero with a blind spot? Check. Ridiculously authentic, obviously-well-researched setting (Japan circa 1800)? Check. Crackling dialogue (seamlessly “translated” from Dutch and Japanese yet!)? Sensory detail of the most intimate and unexpected kind? Aching love story? Political intrigue? Breathless plot twists? Evil villains? Check, check, check, check, check, and…check.
But here’s what really gets me about this novel, grammar nerd that I am: its simple declarative sentences.
An example, chosen randomly from page 194:
Uzaemon glimpses the enormity of the risk he is taking.
Would they bother with a warrant? Or just dispatch an assassin?
Uzaemon looks away. To stop and think would be to abort the rescue.
Feet splash in puddles. The brown river surges. Pines drip.
I think I’m in love.
…THIS JUST IN! I wrote the above before arriving at page 451. That’s where I found this paragraph:
Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the market place and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule drivers, mules, and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunchbacked makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nagasaki River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges…
Do you hear it yet? Feel it? Read the passage aloud.
And it goes on like this, this single paragraph, for nearly a page and a half, all gorgeous internal rhyme hidden amidst sense-snatching detail like some kind of literary sleight-of-hand. The final sentence of the paragraph ends this way:
…where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of the Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night’s rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.
I think I read that last sentence holding my breath, hearing the paragraph, like the gulls, wheel full circle back to where its flight began.
As far as I’ve noticed, this is the only paragraph in the book like this–and Mitchell throws it out there on page 451 like, “Hey, yeah, see what I could do if I wanted? I could write this whole book in rhyme if I felt like it. Dare me?”
I’m telling ya: this former English teacher and lifelong reader & writer gets chills.
But I need to finish this book, and it’s your turn now. Do you have a book which you love as much for its use of sentence structure or language as for the story? Should I read it? Tell, tell.
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