Book Review: The Thousand Autums of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
I have loved David Mitchell since I picked up Cloud Atlas many years ago. (And friends? Whichever one of you borrowed it during a drunken dinner party… BRING IT BACK.)
He’s just such a great storyteller, effortlessly building complex characters without sacrificing the flow of the narrative. Hell, Mitchell veritably gambols through stories; you get the feeling that scaling back is never an option, largesse being effortless, like that of a seasoned hostess, who is compelled, nonchalantly, to spectacularly overcater.
I was a little apprehensive picking up The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, though. A historical novel set in Japan? And not just Japan, but a tiny Dutch East India trading outpost offshore from Nagasaki? That’s going to take some scene setting to keep an ADD girl like me interested.
It takes Mitchell exactly 4 pages, the opening scene of a difficult birth, to get me hooked.
So what’s it about? At the turn of the 19th century, a naive young Dutch bookkeeper, Jacob de Zoet, travels to Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki’s harbour as part of a new delegation of officials sent to root out corruption.
There he falls in love with a scarred midwife, Orito Aibagawa, befriends an eccentric doctor/scholar Dr Marinus, finds himself both in and out of grace… and grows into himself.
It’s a fantastic journey, both literally and figuratively, and Mitchell’s skill allows him to build some truly glorious folk: from magical UberEvil Abott Enomoto to a fabulously cranky and issue-ridden gouty English Admiral Penhaligon, with all manner of corrupt Dutch officials in between. There’s been some criticism as to the shallowness of the characters, but clearly the guy who wrote the review for The New Yorker is much brighter than me… because I thought that, together, they weaved a really beautiful moral tale of action and inaction, love and pride, self and selfishness.
I do agree that “David Mitchell seems to have more stories than he quite knows what to do with” and I think it’s why I loved this book so much.
After reading far too much trashy chick lit, where a tiny thread of narrative has to support many wardrobe ‘n’ boyfriend changes, this book reminded me of why I love to read… because great writers can leave you satisfied and slightly breathless, even on a tiny man-made trading island in 19th century Nagasaki.
Read it. T’will make you happy.
Sam Wilson, Editor-in-Chief, Women24.com. This review first appeared on Women24.
The Thousand Autums of Jacob De Zoet is available at Lobby Books for R185.