Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

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

One-line summary: A multiple-POV novel about a pious Dutch clerk's odyssey in Edo-period Japan.


Goodreads: Average: 4.18. Mode: 4/5 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.0. Mode: 5 stars.

In 1799, Jacob de Zoet disembarks on the tiny island of Dejima, the Dutch East India Company’s remotest trading post in a Japan otherwise closed to the outside world. A junior clerk, his task is to uncover evidence of the previous Chief Resident’s corruption.

Cold-shouldered by his compatriots, Jacob earns the trust of a local interpreter and, more dangerously, becomes intrigued by a rare woman – a midwife permitted to study on Dejima under the company physician. He cannot foresee how disastrously each will be betrayed by someone they trust, nor how intertwined and far-reaching the consequences.

Duplicity and integrity, love and lust, guilt and faith, cold murder and strange immortality stalk the stage in this enthralling novel, which brings to vivid life the ordinary – and extraordinary – people caught up in a tectonic shift between East and West.

I love a good historical novel, and hate bad ones. Bad novels in other genres at least provide some entertainment value for snarking, usually, but bad historical novels just bore me.

I have a special love for historical novels about Japan, because I was totally that Japanophile kid (but way before anyone invented the term weeaboo, fortunately) who read Shogun when I was in sixth grade.

In retrospect, Shogun, with its beheadings, torture, and sea urchin dildos, was probably not the most appropriate novel for a twelve-year-old to read. Naturally, I loved it, and didn't have the sense to realize just how historically and culturally inaccurate it was.

As Shogun was loosely (very, very loosely) based on the exploits of British sailor William Adams, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is loosely based on the life of Hendrik Doeff, the commissioner of the Dutch East India Company's trading post at Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki harbor, and at the time, the only real contact between the West and Japan.

Mitchell's novel is less salacious and more literary, and more appropriate for older me. Though I'll always have a warm spot in my heart for James Clavell's schlock, Mitchell is a much better writer.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a multi-POV novel. The main characters are Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet and the disfigured daughter of a samurai Orito Aibagawa, but several other characters, European and Japanese, take center stage for brief periods. The first third of the book is mostly told from Jacob de Zoet's POV, and the middle section switches to the Japanese characters, mostly Orito. In the last third, everything comes together, though Orito almost seemed to be forgotten until the very end when her subplot was resolved.

Mitchell does a good job of describing Japan, both from the European perspective (typically bigoted, though some characters, like de Zoet, at least try to see the Japanese as people) and from the Japanese. To the extent that one believes there is such a thing as a "literary" genre, this is a literary novel -- in a few sections, it almost seems as if Mitchell is waving his hands saying "Look, literary!" Notably, in the internal monologue of a Malaysian slave on the nature of his slavery, which really has nothing to do with the plot, and a poetic interlude at the very end before a confrontation between Japanese magistrate Shiroyama and Enomoto, the sinister abbot who is the novel's chief villain.

I find it's educational to read both the positive and negative reviews of a book after I've finished it. One-star reviews can be particularly interesting, even if you think the reviewers are nucking futs at times. The bad reviews for this book are mostly along the lines of "Ewww! There are creepy/violent parts!" and "It was too long and had too many characters and I got bored!"

On the first point, I'd have to say that these people must be pretty sheltered. The creepy, violent parts are pretty mild. (Especially compared to, say, Shogun.) As to the second, I suspect this is what happens when adults fail to make the transition from reading YA novels. (Not that I have anything against YA novels, but at some point grown-ups need to learn to enjoy ice cream and vegetables.) This is a long novel that demands your attention to keep track of all the subplots and characters, but it is well worth it.

Verdict: A sprawling novel with a large cast and many interwoven subplots which come together in the end. It's got humor, treachery, violence, heroes and villains, a love triangle, mercantile schemes and monastic conspiracies, a naval bombardment, and a bittersweet ending. Highly recommended!
Tags: books, david mitchell, highly recommended, history, literary, reviews

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