Chris's Reviews > The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
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's review
Jul 07, 10

Read from June 25 to July 07, 2010

Mitchell is supposed to be a master of voices, but he continually uses the same framework throughout this book.

"I wonder, thought (Character A), about (subject one)"


"He stopped to consider, thought (Character B), about (issue two)"

This sentence structure is pervasive throughout the otherwise mostly enjoyable 469 page novel. It becomes a very apparent tick before long. Additionally, about half way through, I became acutely aware that I may have been reading a romance novel, or at least a very weak and failing romance novel.

The lead character, Jacob De Zoet, is a very obvious stand-in for the author with only minor tweaks (he's got red hair, is dutch). Jacob is an bright, literary fellow living in the Japanese trading port of Dejima at the beginning of the 19th Century. He falls, inexplicably, into the shopworn madame-butterfly-scenario (yawn) with a japanese medical student with a scar on her face from childhood (note to authors, make your characters have something about them that makes the reader pity them, it draws them in!). De Zoet suffers under the misrule of fools and general backward, provincial attitudes, yet keeps his integrity and ultimately prospers.

Mitchell has fallen into the very large trap of taking modern sensibilities and attitudes, and transporting them back in time, to judge and generally feel pity and distain for people from the distant past. (How would a smart, liberal, literary, European fellow go about life in Japan in 1800? Read this book and find out! ) If you're going to write a novel taking place in the middle ages, have the characters have a middle-ages worldview. If you write an enlightenment-era novel, the characters should have enlightenment-era worldviews and attitudes. Isn't this taught in creative writing classes? Wouldn't this be taught on the first day of College Lit 101? This is as basic as "the views of the characters do not necessarily reflect the views of the author" and similar, related 'Basics of Literature'. Regardless, the final chapter contains some dazzlingly good passages where Mitchell's prose approaches, or at least apes, the musicality of Joyce. The end is also reassuringly warm and memorable.

A well-wrought but ill-conceived and therefore ultimately mediocre novel, with less vigour and genius than either of the two novels of his I have read, Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas. However, this novel will be a big hit and win many awards. Once an author is established as a 'brand', it is hard for them to really fail to attract readers no matter what mire and dreck then plunge up (cf. John Updike, John Irving, perhaps even Rushdie).
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07/04/2010 page 523
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Scott (new)

Scott Gates Man.... based on your review, I think I'll despise this novel when I read it.

Jonathan Don't you think there's a spectrum of attitudes and world views that people hold in any era? And always some forward and backward thinkers?

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