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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

thousand autumnThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Published in: 2010
Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2010)
Reviewed by Jen
Rating: 3.5 stars
Find it here: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

After reading Cloud Atlas, I avoided all other Mitchell books for many years for fear of being disappointed. Cloud Atlas is one of the books that made it into my list of favorite books which is no small feat. I have over 600 books on my Shelfari bookshelf and only 10 of those books have made it onto my list of favorites. Typically when I love an author, I seek out all their books but I felt differently about my first experience with Mitchell. Cloud Atlas was one of those books that was notable for me because it was unlike anything I had ever read. It was intelligent but in an unpretentious and highly accessible manner. While Cloud Atlas was a great and engaging story, it was the unique way that Mitchell played around with narrative structure, timeline, and genre that made the reading experience so wonderful for me. So when I turned to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it was under the shadow of unrealistically high expectations.

It’s perhaps not surprising that this book couldn’t live up to these expectations. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a complete departure from Cloud Atlas. This book falls squarely into the historical fiction genre with a relatively straightforward narrative structure. Set in 18th century Japan, the novel tells the story of Dutch shipping clerk and a Japanese midwife named Orito Aibagawa. Jacob accepts a position with the Dutch East Indies Trading company in Japan in order to improve his prospects and impress his future father in-law. As a man of integrity and honesty, he struggles to fit into the corrupt system and becomes quickly seen as a threat by others in the company and by Japanese officials who work with the company. Like Jacob, Orito is also out of place in her environment and seen as a threat by those who surround her. She is well-educated and independent and is allowed to study medicine with Dutch doctors. After a chance meeting involving a monkey (yes, a monkey), Jacob becomes infatuated with Orito. But his interest in her is thwarted when she is essentially abducted and taken to away to a mysterious sect to pay back her father’s debts. What follows is part-adventure story and part romance, although certainly not in a traditional sense.

If the plot sounds complicated, that is because it is. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a dense novel filled with many themes that branch out in different related, but separate, story lines: There’s the corruption in the shipping company reflecting the struggle between good and evil (honesty and dishonesty), the cultural misunderstandings and conflicts, gender roles, faith versus science, and power struggles on multiple levels.

The writing is wonderful and his characters are complex and well-developed. So, why the 3.5 stars? Perhaps it is unfair of me but I couldn’t help but it compare to Cloud Atlas which engaged me in ways few other books have been able to do. I did enjoy the book, but at times I found the level of detail to be tedious and I found myself drifting and distracted fairly frequently. I found some elements to be understated and others more melodramatic (the events in the Shrine). Finally, I felt unsatisfied by the ending

The book does get a lot of critical acclaim and I think that those who love historical fiction will enjoy the book. Those who are looking for another Cloud Atlas will probably be disappointed.

Want to try it for yourself? You can buy it here: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

We want to hear from you. Have you read the book? What did you think? Which Mitchell book should I read next?

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well I did warn you this was my least favourite Mitchell so far 🙂 that said did you keep an eye out for the characters from Cloud Atlas who also appear in there?

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    June 26, 2015
    • Nope. Now I have to go back and look.

      Like

      June 26, 2015
      • I don’t know, I give you all the insider information that Mitchell considers each of his novels to be individual chapters of a giant book and that certain characters reappear in multiple novels and you don’t even look out for them 😉 ***shaking head sadly***

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        June 26, 2015
      • Lol! I do remember you saying that I just couldn’t remember the characters because it’s been a while since I read cloud atlas

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        June 26, 2015
  2. mushypeasonearth #

    I haven’t read this one but feel similar about Mitchell. Cloud Atlas BLEW ME AWAY! After that I read Ghostwritten, which is very similar in style but he wrote first- so it feels like he is experimenting. Its good but not great. Then I read Black Swan Green which I didn’t really enjoy (review here: https://bookaweekblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/29-black-swan-green-david-mitchell/) and then more recently The Bone Clocks (review https://bookaweekblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/61-the-bone-clocks-david-mitchell/) which was ambitious but didn’t quite hit the mark for me. So I think Cloud Atlas is kind of a one off, sadly!

    Liked by 1 person

    June 26, 2015
  3. Now I am just the opposite of you. I prefer this to Cloud Atlas by a nose, possibly because for some reason the Hawaii portion of Cloud Atlas just irritated the hell out of me. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres though, so it’s not surprising that those were my favorite slices of the Cloud Atlas pie.

    Liked by 1 person

    June 26, 2015
    • Yeah, I think that readers whose favorite genre is historical fiction will like this one much more.

      Like

      June 26, 2015
  4. Such a wonderful book. I’m sad to see you felt it wasn’t great. Either way, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    June 26, 2015
    • I think perhaps my rating was impacted by unfair expectations and may likely have been higher had I read it before Cloud Atlas. I do think he is a wonderfully skilled author

      Liked by 1 person

      June 26, 2015
  5. I think Mitchell did a great job at portraying the interaction between the collapsing VOC and Edo Japan. The first half of the book is both humourous and intriguing. But I agree, it did not live up to the ridiculous expectations we have after Cloud Atlas. The ending also confuses me quite a bit. But the questions are answered in Bone Clocks. I started to read Mitchell’s books as something like Discworld. He created this parallel reality which all his characters are living. It has a bit of magic, a bit of dystopian science fiction, a bit of gangster fights in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    June 28, 2015
    • I agree about portraying the interaction well. I haven’t read bone clocks yet. I actually own all his books so I’m deciding which one to read next.

      Like

      June 29, 2015

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