David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet

23May10

In terms of books being confusing and complex, this one ranks right up there. New characters being introduced every couple of pages, the story taking dramatic turns, changing from showing corruption while trading in the 18th-19th century to a surreal adventure story, and there’s a love story thrown in, just for good measure as well.

But no – that’s not all. In fact, that’s simplifying it much.

The book has one of the most graphic opening chapters, where a child is coming into the world, already dead. However, by some miracle, Orito (a midwife) saves the life of the child (and the mother). It’s 1799 and the place is Nagasaki. Christianity is banned, most of the women are “wives” or prostitutes, and the locals and foreigners interact with the help of “interpreters,” as the Dutch aren’t allowed to study the local dialect.

The importance of the birth and the sequence of events it triggers isn’t obvious in a first chunk of the book. Instead, we’re introduced to the Dutchmen who inhabit the artificial island of Dejima – the corrupt greedy Dutch, working for the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch East India Company). Most of them are corrupt, trying best to figure out how to forge the books for their own personal gains, but there’s the one employee/clerk who puts honour above all else : Jacob de Zoet.

Things get complicated when he falls in love with Orito, the midwife, and they get even further twisted when she’s abducted and sent to the Shrine of Shiranui – where she’s set to become a nun at a convent. The Shrine isn’t really a convent though, and the Goddess isn’t really a Goddess. Think The Handmaid’s Tale… with a twist.

And here, we’ve just finished part one of the book! I don’t want to give too much away, but the rest of the book is a whirlwind, with things happening at the blink of an eye: power trips and struggles, love, betrayal, tragedy, courage and a thirst for the truth.

The writing is extraordinary – something I’ve come to expect from David Mitchell’s books (despite reading only the two). The ambience he creates almost seems to transport me back to the eighteenth century Dejima/Nagasaki. Considering most of my historical association with Nagasaki stems from August 9, 1945, this was a pleasant change. Mitchell even gave a nod to the growing friction between the English and the Dutch in their quest for power in Asia, and the extent to which the respective parties would go. Fantastic, as it almost seemed like text book stuff – but so much more gripping.

I enjoyed the book, but not as much as number9dream, nor as much as Cloud Atlas. I thought this book was less “fun,” and more “serious” – the experimental style of Mitchell’s writing does still exist, but I think, the ambition of this novel lay more in the plot than the surrealism or ambiguity that I’ve come to associate with his writing. I’ve still got two unread books by David Mitchell, and I’m curious to see how this would compare with them.

Do you have a favourite book by David Mitchell? What do you think makes the book stand out?

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12 Responses to “David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet”

  1. 1 Aimee

    Wonderful review. Just received this in the mail and fell utterly in love with the cover so I’m hoping it’s a goody. i’ve only read Cloud Atlas, which I found was flawed at the time of reading it, but now it just sticks in my memory as one of those ‘fantastic’ original reads.

    Looking forward to getting stuck into it after I finish ‘the Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters.

    • The cover is gorgeous, isn’t it? Cloud Atlas is epic – a little trying to read, but in retrospect, fantastic.

      Hope you enjoy Little Stranger. Liked it, but didn’t think it was a patch on Fingersmith.

  2. 3 Karen

    This one sounds a little full on for me to take on at the moment! I haven’t read any of Mitchell’s work before – it sounds like Cloud Atlas might be a good place to start??

    • Possibly – I’ve read three of his works, and I started with number9dream. Not sure I’d be as big a fan if I started with Cloud Atlas, but… think the consensus seems to be that, the first book you read by him ends up being your favourite. Much like Murakami…

  3. 5 Jo

    I’m really looking forward to reading this. Sounds really good. I’ve read Cloud atlas and Black Swan Green. Cloud Atlas was by far the better of the two, but I was blown away by that so I think it would be difficult to match up to.

    • This one did remind me of Cloud Atlas, to be honest – not in terms of the scope, but the ambition of the novel. I haven’t read Black Swan Green, so unfortunately can’t compare the two. Would love to read your thoughts on this, and see how you compare it with the others.

  4. It sounds as though we had a similar experience with this book. I enjoyed it, but I think the complexity means it is actually my least favourite of his books. I’ve read them all and loved Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas equally. Black Swan Green is very different – it is an easy read, but beautifully written and I loved remisicing about my childhood. I predict you’ll love his other books!

    • Thanks for the prediction, Jackie. Hopefully, I’ll read the other two before the year is out.

      I’m with you on it being the least favourite as well – but considering I did still enjoy it, it says a lot!

  5. I have a galley of this book, but have read only the first chapter. Mitchell is a skilled writer, but his books tend to require much concentration on my part, so I think I need to find a chunk of time when I can sit down and focus on only this.

    • I know what you mean. I sat down and finished it in three days, simply because I felt it wasn’t a book I could read in bits and pieces.

      Hope you enjoy it.

  6. I love David Mitchell and can’t wait to read this one – glad to see that the ambition in it matches previous books. My favorite has been Cloud Atlas, with number9dream a close second. He’s absolutely brilliant in my eyes!

  7. I haven’t read this yet, but I have been looking forward to reading it. It has been getting so many great reviews. I was surprised to hear how complicated it is, but I won’t let that turn me off. I hope to read this soon


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