David Mitchell’s Japan – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet reviewed

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, is a compulsively readable, if complex, look at a young trading clerk in Dejima, an isolated trading post that’s one of Japan’s only connections to the outside world.

The Thousand Autumns is an ambitious and massive work. Mitchell has an entire world to populate and colour; he does so memorably. His Dejima is home to a wildly diverse group of people who plot and fight and scheme against each other, almost for sport.

Mitchell’s hero hardly fits in here. De Zoet is a devoutly Christian and steadfastly honest clerk, somebody brought in by the company to make sure everything balances. And in due course, he is swept up into the plans and schemes of those around him and into the larger forces on the mainland.

For this is less a book about history – although Mitchell’s account of Dejima seems to jibe with what happened – then it is about change, about life and death. Set in the late stages of Japan’s Edo period, at the dawn of the 19th century, Mitchell catches both Japan and the Dutch inhabitants of Dejima in a state of flux.

New ideas are seeping into the country, but old ways and superstitions die hard, especially in the homes of the controlling warlords. When the Dutch explain democracy to a group of Japanese, an interpreter puts it to them most succinctly: “Soil in Asia is not correct for Europe and America flowers.”

As for De Zoet, he is a hard guy to like. He’s one of those people who like to think things, like to plot out what they’re going to do only to just miss the mark or find they’ve been outsmarted. But he’s earnest, doggedly loyal and unflinchingly honest, even at his own peril.

So maybe that’s why the girls seem to like him. Although he has a girl at home, he quickly falls for Orito Aibagawa. She’s a midwife who knows a little western medicine to go with traditional eastern remedies. After safely delivering a magistrate’s son, she is granted permission to study under a doctor on Dejima; it’s there she runs into De Zoet and their troubles start.

Fiercely independent and smart, she’s further representative of the changes in Japan: despite her wits and cunning and skill, her gender all but consigns her to a life as a subordinate wife or mistress, not as a practicing physician.

Indeed, I could choose almost any character at random to explain this work. Mitchell does an admirable job in colouring his world, making his Dejima really seem to breathe. It’s littered with people who have, for one reason or another, found themselves literally at the end of the world: Japan is months away from Holland, from the families of all involved.

It’s hard to keep track of who’s who and what they want sometimes, since there are so many characters here, each with their own wants and desires and storylines, each one fully realized, yet all connecting to a common whole.

In all, that’s the biggest strength of The Thousand Autumns. Writing a book with a scope this wide, one that’s unafraid to rapidly shift gears and locals and introduce yet another set of characters, is impressive enough. That Mitchell was able to do it so well? Even more so.

Still, it feels like Mitchell really wanted this book to be good, and it consequently feels a little overwritten. In one instance, Mitchell describes a character gardening outside a room where two characters are having a game of snooker. Other times, he goes even further, into the thoughts of different characters. It’s a little jarring at times to hear each side’s thoughts when they’re also speaking to each other, but thankfully, it’s something he does sparingly.

Overall, with a scope so big, with so many story arcs overlapping and intersecting, it’s a pleasant surprise the book is so compulsively readable; it feels a little like a HBO miniseries on paper. This reviewer, for one, found that it took a little time to get into gear, but once it did, it just kept rolling and drawing me in.

It’s hard to put The Thousand Autumns down, for the plots have more hooks then a tackle box. It’s a great read and easily one of the best novels of 2010. Highly recommended.


1 Response to “David Mitchell’s Japan – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet reviewed”

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