Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Random House; First edition (June 29, 2010)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 stars

"Set in atmospheric coastal Japan, this epic story centers on an earnest young clerk, Jacob de Zoet, who arrives in the summer of 1799 to make his fortune and return to Holland to wed his fiancée. But Jacob's plans are shaken when he meets the daughter of a Samurai."

There are so many great reviews out there, I feel I can hardly do this book justice.
...this majestic historical romance set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, where young, naïve Jacob de Zoet arrives on the small manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor as part of a contingent of Dutch East Indies officials charged with cleaning up the trading station's entrenched culture of corruption. Though engaged to be married in the Netherlands, he quickly falls in hopeless love with Orito Aibagawa, a Dutch-trained Japanese midwife and promising student of Marinus, the station's resident physician. ... Jacob has larger trouble, though; when he refuses to sign off on a bogus shipping manifest, his stint on Dejima is extended and he's demoted, stuck in the service of a vengeful fellow clerk. [PW]
This is not a book that one can simply skim or plough through. For the more voracious readers, who like to devour their books at break-neck speed, this could prove to be a hinderance. Just as you wouldn't rush through a five-course meal, neither should you rush through Mitchell's epic tale (told in five parts).

My biggest struggle came with the first part as it introduced a great number of characters, many with long Dutch or Japanese names that were a bit hard to keep straight. I found myself having to read slower than usual in order to absorb and remember the characters. As a result, it took longer for me to get hooked. Once I got past this section, however, the reading became less labored and the story line(s) quickly picked up the pace.

The story starts simply enough as we watch Orito Abigawa, a disfigured Japanese midwife, deliver the son of the local magistrate. In a world of superstitions, Orito opts for knowledge and study. She delivers, what appears to be, a still born, but as soon as the child begins "mewing" she is heralded as a miracle worker. Because of this, Orito is given permission to study with the Dutch Dr. Marinus on the island of Dejima, a trading outpost in Nagasaki Harbor and the closest foreigners are allowed to the city of Nagasaki.

Jacob de Zoet's entrance into the story is more chaotic, as we are thrust into the arguments of what becomes some sort of legal hearing to uncover thefts and mishandling of funds on the Dejima outpost. de Zoet is the clerk for the hearings and is soon tasked with straightening out the books. If all goes well, he will be promoted and back to his fiancé in one year's time.

Just as those on Dejima can't see far beyond the walls that surround their island, Mitchell gives us only pieces of a larger story (or series of stories). The stories of Orito and Jacob, that are initially woven together, quickly diverge, additional story lines are skillfully inserted, and new patterns take hold. Mitchell takes us through 19th century Japan, into the streets of Nagasaki and the Samurai family of Ogawa; he takes us to the Mount Shiranui Shrine in the Kyoga Domain; and at the same time, leaves us on Japan's doorstep (Dejima) to deal with the outside world. At times we get so absorbed into the story line we nearly forget the other characters who, in the previous act seemed so important.

Mitchell's writing is like a river whose currents are layered, pulling and pushing its readers along. To fight it is to struggle against the story, and to relax is to let the currents pull you in different directions, trusting (hoping) that somehow they will lead you to solid ground. With Mitchell you have to have faith that, although the stories diverge, they will somehow tie back into and satiate one another. 

The folks over at  The Rumpus summed it up quite nicely:
Taken all together, The Thousand Autumns is a strange, chimeric creation. It’s deeply researched, like a proper historical drama, but it’s also luridly melodramatic, like a 19th century adventure story. 

Read more about the book at David Mitchell's Web site.

Amazon readers give it 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads readers give it 4.24 out of 5 stars

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