BOOK: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010)

I finished this novel almost a month ago, but every time I sat down to write about it, I struggled with what to say and then gave up.  Something was bugging me about it and I couldn’t figure out quite what.  After thinking it over a while, though, I’ve decided that while there were a lot of things I really liked about this historical novel, set in early 19th century Japan, overall, I found it lacking in both focus and connection.  It’s about a hundred pages too long, though I couldn’t tell you just which pages to cut, but it’s also kind of distant somehow, reading at times more like a really detailed, brilliantly written history paper than a story the author felt truly compelled to tell me.  A review of the novel in the New Yorker last year described it as lacking in “inner necessity,” which sums up my feelings about it perfectly.  Without that emotional engagement from the author, I found it difficult to connect to the story or its players.

That said, though, what kept me turning the pages of this book was both the story itself, which alternates between being fascinatingly informative about that era in Japan and reading like an impossible-to-put-down thriller, and the mind-blowingly brilliant writing.  This is the first David Mitchell novel I’ve read and I was completely stunned by his talent for stringing words together into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into worlds.  Plus, not only is it marvelously written, but it’s also quite funny at times, a combination that reminded me a bit of Herman Melville, oddly enough.  The writing style and structure are the perfect combination of beauty, wit, smarts, experiment, and reality, and though the characters sometimes struck me as slightly off (Jacob, for example, sure has a very modern perspective on the role of women in society for a dude living in 1799), the writing plays well with the cast overall, using uniquely crafted dialects to draw uniquely crafted people.

The story essentially breaks down into three parts.  The first introduces us to our two main characters, a young Dutch trader named Jacob de Zoet, and a Japanese midwife, Orito Aibagawa, the first female medical student in Japan.

The year is 1799, and Jacob has just arrived in Dejima, a man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki created to serve as the only trading post open to the West in the otherwise-completely-isolationist Japan.  Jacob’s an employee of the Dutch East Indian Company, hired to audit its books and root out corruption, a task soon complicated by his discovery that pretty much everyone working in Dejima, his boss included, is stealing from the company.

Jacob’s determination to stop the theft results in his rapidly becoming about as isolated and ally-free as Japan is itself, until he meets Orito, whose talent as a midwife led Dejima’s doctor, a Westerner, to recruit her into his new medical college (a defiance of local customs regarding women’s roles in society made possible by her status as the daughter of a local samurai).  At first, Jacob is mostly mesmerized by the enormous burn scar covering half her face, but after talking to her a few times, he falls head-over-heels — a love he knows can never go anywhere because of her high station.

The second part of the novel kicks off when Orito’s father dies, leaving behind a ton of debt, and, to pay it back, Orito is sold to a local nunnery.  At first, she kind of takes it all in stride, until she discovers that the nuns there, all also disfigured in some way, are forced to serve as sex slaves to the local monks, their babies then sacrificed and killed instead of sent away to good families, as the women are promised.  Horrified and desperate to escape before it’s her turn to spend a night with a monk, Orito begins planning her escape, even as she finds herself torn by her calling as a midwife to stay (a lot of nuns having babies without help there, after all).  While she plots on her end, back in Dejima, Jacob has joined forces with another of Orito’s suitors, a Japanese man named Uzaemon, to try to come up with their own plan to bust her out.  This section culminates in a thrilling prison break of sorts that kept me turning pages way past my bed time — always a plus in any novel.

The final section of the novel gives us a much more subdued account about what happens to both Jacob and  Uzaemon after Orito’s escape attempt, as well as the impact on Dejima and Japan in general when a British war ship parks itself in Nagasaki’s harbor.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel, and I can’t praise the actual wordsmithing highly enough.  Seriously great.  But I didn’t connect to it emotionally at all, and that makes it hard to recommend.  That distance I mentioned earlier kept me from truly engaging with the characters and their various plights.  It’s a creative, original story written beautifully, yet I was ready to see it end when it did.  That ain’t no good.  I definitely want to try more of Mitchell’s work in the future, having since read that he’s written a lot of more “experimental” fiction, but it’ll probably be a while before I pick anything up.  If you’ve read any of his other novels and really enjoyed them, let me know which ones in the comments?


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4 Responses to “BOOK: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010)”

  1. Ailsa Says:

    Hi Meg,

    I agree with you, I found it hard to connect to this book (quite a lot of plot points revealed in your review, too many?). This was a surprise to me as I loved his two previous books and I can’t recommend them too highly – Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. His first two books (Ghostwritten and Number9Dream) are interesting, but I couldn’t connect with these either – although they’re still worth reading.

  2. megwood Says:

    I don’t feel like this is a book about suspenseful revealing of plot points, though, and I couldn’t think of a way to describe the plot interestingly enough without some of the details. This was a tough one to write about, for sure. Will definitely check out the two you recommend, though! I remember hearing a lot of good things about “Black Swan Green,” in particular!

  3. Jill Says:

    Not only did I enjoy Cloud Atlas while I was reading it, but moments of it have floated back to me in the years since. That’s one mark of a good book.

  4. Sarah Says:

    I too loved Cloud Atlas, and also Ghostwritten. But this book completely failed to move me in the same way. Lacking in emotional connection is a really good way to put it.

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