Monday, July 5, 2010

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

In the summer of 1799, Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet arrives at the Japanese trading post of Dejima, hoping to serve five years and return to Holland a rich man. However, Jacob is an honest type, and it would seem that it takes a serious lack of scruples to get ahead in this pit of corruption. Jacob tries, as any mortal might, to shape circumstances in his favor with his intelligence and loyalty. But what can one man really do in the face of a changing global landscape?

David Mitchell’s GHOSTWRITTEN and CLOUD ATLAS are two of my favorite novels of all time, so though I wasn’t as enamored with his BLACK SWAN GREEN, I was definitely excited to pick up this up. In many ways, THOUSAND AUTUMNS is a return to form for Mitchell – a chance to show off his skill at writing various POVs (though this is written in 3rd person, a departure for author who until now has written in 1st), in bringing historical periods to life, and in believably weaving in a touch of mysticism.

In terms of structure, this is a more conventional effort (a straightforward narrative told in three parts), but the ambitious storytelling is still there. In part one, I was fascinated with Jacob’s struggles to combat corruption and to gain precious moments of face time with a Nagasaki midwife, Orito, who has caught his fancy.

And then the story shifts in part 2, following Orito as she is confined to a mountain hideaway of a sinister and powerful Japanese Abbott. This section, with its crazy dystopian society closed off from the rest of the world, is chilling yet incredibly riveting. Oh and I love the way Mitchell describes the Abbott, on his first meeting with Jacob: “The lips are tight, the cheekbones high, the nose hooked and the eyes ferocious with intelligence. Jacob finds himself as little able to evade the man’s gaze than a book can, of its own volition, evade the scrutiny of a reader.” (p 43 ARC edition, may not reflect final published version.)

In part 3, the story opens wider to address the repercussions in the far east of the shift in geopolitics during the Napoleonic period in Europe. Mitchell picks up all the disparate narrative threads and brings the story to a satisfying, if bittersweet, close.

Despite its heft (nearly 500 pages) and eye to dense historical detail, my attention never lagged. This was due, in part, to the fact that even the minor characters are worth spending time with. Their back stories are so rich, you at once feel that whole novels could be written about them and don’t begrudge them their short interruption of the main plot.

Even though I was thoroughly entertained and captivated by THOUSAND AUTUMNS, I can’t say it reached the dizzying heights of adoration I reserve for GHOSTWRITTEN and CLOUD ATLAS. If you’re new to Mitchell, I’d advise you to start with one of those (unless you aren’t one for experimental narrative structure).

THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET is available in hardcover now. Find out more about it at http://www.thousandautumns.com/

15 comments:

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I have had my eye on this one Lenore and was excited to see your review here.

Currently it is the size of the book causing me to drag my feet, I like to stay to smaller reads during the busy summer, yet I argue with myself is a smaller read is 300 pages, whats 200 more? :)

Lenore said...

Sheila - I usually prefer shorter in the summer too, but this one reads amazingly quickly.

bermudaonion said...

I love great characters, so this book sounds really good to me. Great review!

Darren @ Bart's Bookshelf said...

Oooh, that's a different cover to what I've seen elsewhere, quite like it. I've not read any of Mitchell's books so far, but I do keep meaning to!

Angie said...

Hi Lenore. My name is Angie adn found your blog through the guidebook. I wanted to invite you to join our new book club at http://lemonverveinebookclub.blogspot.com/ we would love to have you! And thanks for the review. I am going to have to check out the book.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Man girl you are quick! This book was just reviewed in the last week in EW. They had a similar opinion by the way. Not stellar but worth the time.

Charley said...

I enjoyed Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, so I snagged a galley of this from work. The size has kept me from picking it up, though, so I'm glad to see that it reads quickly. I like David Mitchell, but his books are a commitment for me. I really have to pay attention to be able to follow what's happening.

Ashley's Bookshelf said...

Hi you have an award here: http://ashleybook.blogspot.com/2010/07/my-first-award.html

Please leave a thank you!

Ashley C.

Alyssa Kirk @ Teens Read and Write said...

I haven't read this author but I'm putting him on my list. Thanks for the review!

irisonbooks said...

Cloud Atlas has been on my wishlist for years, somehow no one ever buys it for my birthday, but maybe this year?

I enjoyed your review a lot, I can't wait to read this, once I've read Cloud Atlas.

Zibilee said...

I have been really curious about this book and really want to get the chance to read it. I also have a copy of Cloud Atlas on my shelf, and after your ringing endorsement of it I will have to read it soon! I think I am going to try to request this one from the library. Great review, Lenore!

Alison said...

I haven't heard about this. It sounds really interesting. I'd like to read more books featuring Japan. Thanks!

Elise said...

I am really looking forward to reading this, I loved Cloud Atlas, and am reading heaps of great reviews of this one!

Beth F said...

I'm going to look for this in audio. I am one of those who owns Mitchell's books but just haven't read them!

johnsquire said...

I really enjoyed both the book and your review. I did find Black Swan Green to be his best novel though!