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

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

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

Twenty word summary

An unusual and exotic story based on impeccable research, with many twists and turns along the way. A “big read”.

Our Review

David Mitchell was much-acclaimed for his novel Cloud Atlas, which won many awards as well as being short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2004.  A new novel by the startlingly good Mr Mitchell is bound to be a major publishing event, and thankfully The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet lives up to its expectations, even exceeding them with ease.

It is the sheer scope and breadth of this novel which impresses,  the attention to detail and the prodigious imagination which has gone into its creation.  But enough plaudits – on to the novel itself.

Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutchman enlists as an officer with the Dutch East India Company and sails to Dejima where he is to become an administrator.  Dejima (see article in Wikipedia) was an artificial island attached to the Japanese city of Nagasaki, established as a trading post during a period when Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world, forbidding all communication with foreigners other than through the tiny community of Dutchmen.

Jacob finds himself among an eccentric and colourful group of colleagues on Dejima, together with slaves, translators and visiting prostitutes.  He is an honourable man who delights in reading his Psalter and refuses to get embroiled in a number of fraudulent schemes which have the potential to make their perpetrators extremely rich.  Chief Resident Vertsenbosch sets Jacob to work going through the ledgers for the last few years to try to find evidence of fraud, a task which soon sets him at odds with other, less honest officers.

But it is the colour of life in Dejima which captivates the reader.  The opposing cultures of The Netherlands and closed-in Japan encounter each other only through formal channels, but there is a whole host of illicit routes through which human life meets its less commercial needs.  The little island itself is a microcosm of a wider society, and gambling, drinking and sex are as prevalent as in any port.

Jacob however has his mind captivated by a Japanese midwife, Orito Aibagawa, who’s mystery is not marred by her disfigured face, marked with scars from a burn.  He knows that it would be strictly forbidden to build a relationship with her, but this does not deter him from manoeuvring to have brief conversations with her or from inveigling others into arranging chance meetings. 

Orito comes from a good family but is thought to be unmarriageable because of her disfigurement but as a reward for delivering the baby of a magistrate’s concubine she is allowed to further her medical studies under Dutch physician Dr Marinus, Dijima’s medical officer.

I particularly enjoyed reading about Dr Marinus, a worldy-wise physician and botanist whose commitment to science is total but is matched by a measure of worldy wisdom which frequently brings Jacob down to earth, paticularly in his relationship with Orito:

It is not even Miss Aibagawa after whom you lust, in truth.  It is the genus, “The Oriental Woman” who so infatuates you. Yes, yes, the mysterious eyes, the camellias in her hair, what you perceives as meekness.  How many hundreds of you besotted white men have I seen mired in the same syrupy hole?

The story of Jacob and Orito’s unfulfilled relationship runs through the whole book.  Orito’s father eventually allows her to be forced into a nunnery, high on a remote mountain, but this turns out to be little short of a harem, a breeding station, in which poor Orito is imprisoned against her will.  At this point I wondered how David Mitchell managed to write of such an unusual community. 

It is all terribly believable and as a piece of fiction it is remarkable for allowing its readers into such a strange and secretive place.  And we don’t just read about the “convent” itself, but also the people who live below the mountain prison;  the herbalist Otane who is struggling to maintain her practice despite her advancing years, and the escaped monk Jiritsu who carries a hand-written scroll describing the forbidden secrets of the religious orders on the mountain.

Jacob’s career has its ups and downs.  At one point his refusal to sign-off false accounts robs him of a promotion and finds him serving under the odious Fischer who misses no opportunity to humiliate him.  But honour will out and over the course of several years we see Jacob rise to the position he deserves.

The scope of the novel is far wider than the career of one man however, and David Mitchell covers the political changes that see the Dutch loose influence in the east, and even includes a half-hearted assault on the island by the British ship Phoebus under Captain John Penhaligon, a gouty and bad-tempered master who finds Jacob no easy adversary.

To describe this book is not to do it justice; it is the quality of the writing which marks it out, for David Mitchell floats airy, lyrical digressions among the most dramatic episodes:

Picking slugs from the cabbages with a pair of chopsticks, Jacob notices a ladybird on his right hand.  He makes a bridge for it with his left, which the insect obligingly crosses. Jacob repeats the exercise several times.  The ladybird believes, he thinks, she is on a momentous journey but she is going nowhere.  He pictures and endless sequence of bridges between skin-covered islands over voids, and wonders if an unseen force is playing the same trick on him . . .

David Mitchell has created and mastered a vast array of characters in this novel, and I can only think that it is his personal experience of Japan (see Wikipedia link below) which has enabled him to give so many of his characters such convincing Oriental voices.  But Jacob de Zoet is our subject, and by the end of the book, we have seen him grow from a young man to the mellow fruitfulness of old age, showing a satisfying character development worthy of the novel’s length.  As with all worthwhile novels, the reader gets to know the main character intimately and is sorry to see him disappear with the final page.

Title:  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author:   David Mitchell
Publication:   Sceptre (2010), Hardback, 480 pages
ISBN: 9780340921562

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