An epic novel, both in size and in narrative scale. Jacob de Zoet, a stubbornly honorable clerk, is at the center of the story, as he tries to acquaint himself with Japan of the year 1799. It's an exotic land, both geographically and psychologically. Jacob is surrounded by an unsavory lot of fellow tradesman, a group of sycophantic Japanese interpreters and the beguiling burned midwife Orito.
The first third of the book was a struggle for me. It focused on ordinary life in the extra-ordinary world of Dejima, the Dutch trading town separated from Japan-proper. Unless a reader is really, really interested in the minutiae of copper quotas and herbs (and, I admit, I am not), the first section of Thousand Autumns can feel like an unrewarding trial.
The second third of the book goes in the complete opposite direction, the story seemingly transcribed from a Mifune samurai film from the 1960s. Orito is whisked away to a mountain monastery, where the monks there are actually (view spoiler)[members of a crazy baby-killing cult. (hide spoiler)]
The story clips along quickly here, is exciting and interesting, but still somehow feels tremendously over-the-top.
The final third of the book combines the researched realism of the first section with the excitement of the second. (view spoiler)[The British have Dejima under attack and de Zoet must fight them off. (hide spoiler)]
But a quick description of the plot(s) doesn't do The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet justice. Mitchell's writing is beautiful, flowing. His exhaustive research into 18th century Holland and Japan is so well integrated into his book that there are no glaring "Exposition Time!" moments. He is a true craftsman. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>