The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
|The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Madeline Wheatley|
|Summary: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a compelling story of love, redemption and regret. Set in Japan at the end of the eighteenth century, yet timeless in its portrayal of human lives, it provides further proof of David Mitchell’s astonishingly versatility.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 480||Date: May 2010|
The belly craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love, and the mind craves stories.
This is the book to satisfy that last craving. It is rich in stories from the graphic opening chapter to the poignant closing lines. Everyone has a tale to tell and even minor characters are fleshed out with histories that amuse, horrify or enthral. Their stories made me think about how sometimes what at the time seems to be an insignificant choice can define the course of a life. Here the characters’ choices unleash a cascade of consequences.
At the heart of the book is Jacob de Zoet. A clerk for the Dutch East India Company, he arrives in Nagasaki harbour in 1799 primed to help uncover evidence of corruption at the trading post of Dejima. A painstaking, honourable man, his intention is to make his name and return home to claim the hand of his bride. Then he meets Orito Aibagawa, (midwife and would be surgeon), new choices seem possible and his carefully made plan begins to unravel.
The man made island of Dejima is a window on the closed world of Japan, a meeting point for vastly different nations. In 1799 Japan remained deliberately cut off from the rest of the world, Japanese people were forbidden to leave the country and influences such as Christianity were stringently repelled. Part of the attraction of the book is the fascination of the stranger, the struggle to understand another way of life, and how everyone is sure their way is best. The cultural prejudices of all the characters, both Western and Eastern, are skilfully drawn with a weather eye on the values of the period. Typical of this is a discussion between the Japanese interpreters and the Dutch traders on the subject of democracy. The idea of election by the people amazes the interpreters. When told that everyone has a vote they ask if this includes slaves. This is greeted by the supporters of democracy with as much amusement as if the interpreters had suggested that the vote be given to horses or women…
Alongside memorable characters is a very strong sense of place with vividly described settings. Readers who enjoyed the ship board sequence in Cloud Atlas will find Mitchell’s skill in bringing maritime life to the page further refined in the vessels in Nagasaki harbour.
Jacob and Orito move through a maze of events as Mitchell blends historical realism with more than a hint of the supernatural. As you realise quite where the story is going the book becomes hard to put down. Be prepared to be bleary eyed in the morning if you read it late at night – once you get half way you will have to read to the end.
Will it be third time lucky for David Mitchell and the Booker Prize? I think that anyone who enjoys reading the shortlist should get a head start and read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet immediately. For those who find the words Booker Prize a deterrent, make an exception for this book. You won’t regret it.
Thank you to the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag and keeping me up all night!
Further reading suggestion:
If you haven’t already tried it, the must read is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas
Or try Kamila Shamsie Burnt Shadows for another picture of East meets West, set in the years following the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki.
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