Tocotin'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
Oct 02, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: contemporary-literature, far-east, historical-fiction, my-own-books, western-books-about-japan, japan
Read in September, 2011 — I own a copy

Before I read this book, I saw an interview with the author and thought him a nice guy; and it's evident in his writing too. He's kind and compassionate towards women, slaves, children and oppressed groups in general, and in a subtle, ironic way. I think it's rare in authors (male or female), so thumbs up for that.
Another thing I liked was the ending. Not all (actually scarcely any) of the stories are completed, but the way the beginning scene turned out to be crucial for the ending was quite impressive. I also sort of began to warm up to the main character (I mean Jacob) at the end, but my favorite was the Japanese translator Uzaemon, and then the magistrate Shiroyama. In fact, the Japanese characters were very well written, I think. As to the Europeans, I'm sorry to say I have a feeling I've already met those fellows once, namely in Shogun: all smelly, obnoxious, ignorant, cruel and plainly stupid. Oh well. It will be a happy day when I finally come across a novel about Japan which has foreigners in it, and treats BOTH them and the Japanese fairly. Alas, I fear it won't happen anytime soon.
Back to the book. I didn't like the narrative style at all, because I could see the effort that went into it, at the expense (I'm afraid) of the plot and pace. The dialogues and monologues sounded very, I don't know, overwrought and unnatural. Especially in the parts when several characters, one after another, suddenly decided to tell Jacob their whole lives - at that moment any action just came to a grinding halt.
The first part of the book was really difficult to get through because there were so many people and each and every one of them seemed to have something to add to the story. I thought, hey, but they all look the same, and they are all worthless, stupid, smelly Europeans, why should I care? And it turned out I shouldn't have, because the second part didn't have much to do with the first. Instead of Dejima and Europeans, the story switched to the crazy hybrid cult in the mountains (it was so cheesy I enjoyed it a lot). In the third part the action went in a different direction, because a British ship appeared all of a sudden in Nagasaki and began to threaten Dejima. I didn't really understand the relevance of this particular story (can't say more for fear of spoilers), but it was also kind of fun. I liked the poor gouty captain.
What else? There were the ubiquitous tables (I enjoy hunting for tables in historical fiction about Japan), there was a strange thing about unmarried girls blackening their teeth (they didn't, but maybe it's a Nagasaki thing?), and Lord Abbot and his cult annoyed me a lot. Yes, in Edo period and before there was a general cohabitation and concord between Buddhism and native religions, but there was no such thing as "Shinto monastery" and the very word Shinto wasn't even that much in use. If a feudal lord became an abbott, it's highly unlikely he'd continue as the master of the domain, he would be considered as retired and his son/heir would be the head of the clan. Also, Shinto gods in general abhor blood and death, so... I may be wrong, but I can't help the feeling that the author is kind of pulling the collective leg of his readership.
The afterword was funny. It read as if David Mitchell - a very ambitious writer, unconventional, but with a firmly established "literary" outlook - has just discovered that popular fiction exists, and decided to try it with a great zeal, and immediately wrote a treatise on it. I got me some nice lolz out of this situation :)
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message 1: by Linda (new)

Linda I was considering this book but your review let me know I would not like it. It was what you said about the text sounding patched together from the research. Great historical fiction that transcends the author's notes and outlines is hard to find.

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