The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The 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
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