The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By: David Mitchell
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, and costly courtesans comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland. But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken—the consequences of which will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings.
Omg you guys, this book has been on my TBR queue forever. Whenever I update my TBR lists (yes, I do keep a written list of the books on my queue), it’s always there, at the top (well, top 3), indicating that it’s been on the queue for a very long time. After years of listing it on seasonal TBR lists for Top Ten Tuesdays, I finally opened the eBook and started reading it 😀
Firstly, oh man, the feeling I got when I got to the end and knowing I finally finished this book that has been sitting on the TBR lists for so long…It was nice 🙂
*clears throat* Anyway, reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was an interesting experience. The word that comes to mind is “subtle”, from the way that life experiences and thematic aspects emerge over the course of the story to the way that the story unfolded. It was a rather slow start story-wise, which left me wondering exactly where was the story headed, but it was interesting in that it followed Jacob’s experience in Japan: the trade, the stark contrast in cultures. It’s quite an adventure for Jacob as he’s faced with the obvious perils of the time, the murkiness of human interest and intent, the technology of the time. This was especially apparent in the first part of the novel but over the course of the novel it does touch on other aspects of the world in which these characters are in: the social issues, cultural practices, religion and politics of the time, the medical advancements available then, economic practices, etc. I was impressed at how expansive it was. Strangely enough the politics isn’t so much in the forefront as I perhaps thought it would but it does weave in and out and plays a role in the unfolding of the plot. I admit, it did take some orienting to time-wise; for some reason my mind keeps drawing back to James Clavell’s Shogun as a sort of comparative note, but obviously the time in which this novel is set in is far later. I didn’t realise we had passed the French Revolution until there was that joke made about Robspierre (a very black and subtle joke, but I chuckled :3).
The story does however pick up somewhere along the 25% line; I was really glued to the book for most of the story from there. I don’t know how to explain this without going into too much detail but suffice to say I was not expecting that storyline at all. We’re still following their lives and their experiences, but it’s no longer just Jacob but also other characters whom he have come to care for and make up a good part of his time in Japan. Also, as I mentioned, there is a plot that develops and draws in a lot of tension and drama and “OMG are they going to make it?!” sort of feels; there was one particular chapter that was especially harrowing–I was flailing and on the verge of hyperventilating, it was that intense–but what was especially amazing was how at the end of the chapter was this beautiful and haunting statement that just totally changes the tone of that chapter and where that character was at. Brilliant stuff.
The cast of characters were fascinating, both the Westerners and the Japanese; I really grew to care for them even as some of them had conflicting interests from Jacob. I have to admit, Jacob sort of baffles me; he’s such a well-meaning guy but to have survived that long amongst some cutthroats, schemers, and bastards, I don’t know how he got through. His internal change over the course of his time in Dejima was very interesting to follow. And Orito the Japanese midwife was just amazing, she is such a strong character despite of all the things she went through, how true to herself she was amidst her predicament; she’s very much like Jacob in a way. And Ogawa’s role and everything…
Despite of this awesomeness, I felt like the final 25% of this novel sort of pewtered out. We have that confrontation that has sort of been building up in the backdrop with the Dutch and the English, but I didn’t expect it to steal the limelight from everything else that was happening. I also didn’t really appreciate the new POVs that entered here; I just wanted to get back to Jacob and Orito’s stories, dammit 😛 And then the way everything sort of wrapped up at the end with the time jumps seemed far too rushed for my liking, especially after this novel took forever in setting itself up (though there was this one moment in the second last chapter…again, the feels).
Overall I liked The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and I’m glad I finally read it. The flow of the story felt uneven but once it hits its stride and a major storyline reveals itself, it got really interesting. I’m thankful that this was my first David Mitchell novel as I heard his other books, however interesting their premises sound, are more experimental in structure. So yeah, if you haven’t read any of David Mitchell’s books (and/or you enjoy reading stories set in Japan or with Japanese culture), this is a good book to start with.