Mary'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
Feb 03, 12

Read in February, 2012

Chapter one gets us off to a dramatic start with a Japanese midwife in late 18th c. Japan accomplishing a concubine's difficult delivery, helped along by her knowledge of European obstetrics. This chapter pulled me in, but the next hundred pages or so defaulted to life in the Dutch East India Company outpost of Dejima, near Nagasaki. More difficult names than a Russian novel, but I have plenty of them under my belt and know that if one perseveres the cast becomes clear. Besides, I had hopes of getting back to the midwife's story. All the complicated Dutchmen were by turns noble, repulsive, mercenary (mostly that); lots of indistinguishable Japanese arrived on the scene, and along about page 160, somebody badly betrayed somebody's trust, but this didn't engage me because I had by then lost all ability to tell one Dutchman from another. This is the slowest book to get into since Anna Karenina. Why did I keep going? Well, Mitchell creates intricate worlds, like Cornell boxes, weird cities. Keeps you turning the pages, dutifully at first. WAIT, the midwife story is back!! Also, l enjoy this writer's relationship to "reality." Despite its exotic locale, things happen rather as they do in life, randomly, whole continents seems to sink between chapters and you have to wait for a character to "remember" how that cliff hanger Mitchell set up turned out. We get to a moment of potential drama and the threat vaporizes or, conversely, heads roll through a bucolic moment. Just like life. I loved that effect. Or he would shoot forward twenty years and footnote how some serious encounter played out/ played down. Way interesting. I also thought the historical part of this historical fiction was beautifully handled, with a kind of similitude of 18th century life and speech. No cumbersome groaning machinery of research; all those artifacts of medicine, commerce, naval engagement, and --let's not forget--Japanese culture are assimilated into a hospitable read. The Jacob de Zoet of the title is a good man in a bad mess; the midwife, Orito, is a brave and tough woman. At one point she is abducted into a cult that made me think of The Handmaid's Tale, where she perseveres in doing good against the odds. Jacob and Orita keep trying to get to each other without losing their integrity or their skins, and, just like life, miss the moments they deserve. If you can be very Zen and love the chaos of each moment without caring much how you got here or who these people are, you'll like this better than Shogun.
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