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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

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Japan, 1799; Jacob de Zoet arrives on Dejima in Nagasaki harbour. For over 150 years this artificial island, manned by the Dutch East India Company, has been the only point of contact between Japan and Europe. The foreign traders are forbidden to leave the island whilst the Japanese may not travel beyond their native land. Yet through the porthole of Dejima the new learning of the Enlightenment seeps into the Shogun’s cloistered realm while tales of a mysterious land seep out.

As a junior clerk, de Zoet’s task is to uncover evidence of the previous Chief Resident’s malpractice. Ostracised by his compatriots, he befriends a local interpreter and becomes drawn to one of the few women on the island, a midwife with a scarred face who is granted permission to study under the Company physician. But in the battles for supremacy on Dejima and the mainland, and between the Dutch and British on the high seas, trust is betrayed and loyalties are tested to breaking point.

At once a love story, an adventure, a study of power and corruption, and a glimpse into a hidden world, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet brings to vivid life the ordinary - and extraordinary - people caught up in a tectonic shift between East and West. It is an historical novel unlike any other from one of the brightest talents writing in the English language.

530 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 13, 2010

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About the author

David Mitchell

106 books13.6k followers
David Mitchell was born in Southport, Merseyside, in England, raised in Malvern, Worcestershire, and educated at the University of Kent, studying for a degree in English and American Literature followed by an M.A. in Comparative Literature. He lived for a year in Sicily, then moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students for eight years, before returning to England. After another stint in Japan, he currently lives in Ireland with his wife Keiko and their two children. In an essay for Random House, Mitchell wrote: "I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but until I came to Japan to live in 1994 I was too easily distracted to do much about it. I would probably have become a writer wherever I lived, but would I have become the same writer if I'd spent the last 6 years in London, or Cape Town, or Moose Jaw, on an oil rig or in the circus? This is my answer to myself." Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), moves around the globe, from Okinawa to Mongolia to pre-Millennial New York City, as nine narrators tell stories that interlock and intersect. The novel won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (for best work of British literature written by an author under 35) and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His two subsequent novels, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2003, he was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. In 2007, Mitchell was listed among Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in The World. Mitchell's American editor at Random House is novelist David Ebershoff.

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Profile Image for Stephen King.
Author 1,985 books811k followers
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January 31, 2014
In this historical novel, an unassuming Dutch bookkeeper named Jacob de Zoet falls in love with a beautiful midwife in 18th-century Japan. When Miss Aiba-gawa is spirited away to a mountain monastery, Jacob finds the heroism in his soul. Here is a bygone secret world full of charm and horror. Mitchell is best known for Cloud Atlas, which was a literary stunt in this correspondent’s opinion. The Thousand Autumns is far better.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books884 followers
September 23, 2021
Remember Dr. Seuss's words, children: "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" In the case of wunderkind writer David Mitchell's THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, you'll set your time machine dial for 1799 and a makeshift Dutch port called Dejima on the shores of Nagasaki, Japan.

But let's take it down another level. You'll start at the port and live with old salts that'll make the Pirates of the Caribbean look like so many Lord Fauntleroys. You'll visit the homes of the secretive Japanese magistrates. You'll do some time in Dr. Marinus's "academy," witnessing some bone-chilling turn of THAT century operations (removal of a kidney stone, for instance, in full metal graphics). You'll go up into the mountains past Nagasaki, up to a castle where Japanese women are held in captivity but told they are "nuns" worshiping an obscure goddess. Over the river and through the woods you'll go in an exciting mission with samurais bent on rescuing one very special captive in this castle. And you'll even hit the low seas (off Dejima) and join British Captain Penhaligon as he wrestles with his conscience and his wits, trying to decide whether to attack the Dutch and Japanese or negotiate with them. Nautical chess games, anyone?

David Mitchell can flat-out write. Among contemporary writers, he reigns supreme (I would say in my book, but in HIS books, actually) for his ability to turn poetry into words and to make images dance in startling ways. This is a writer's writer with imagination and skill. And what's best is how he's constantly challenging himself as well. Here we have historical fiction in one of the most unusual of settings, yet you'll feel you're there and that you actually have an understanding of the mysterious land of the shoguns as well as the nefarious intrigues of the European traders. As you'd expect from Mitchell, the allusions are rich and varied, too. Through characters such as Dr. Marinus, the surgeon/musician/man of science as well as the arts with the Dutch, you'll hear references to the Greeks, the Romans, the ancient Arabs, the Bible, mythology, philosophers, scientists, and whatnot. An irascible and complex man, Marinus was one of my favorites, though his role was rather minor.

Bigger roles go, of course, to Jacob and the disfigured Japanese midwife he falls in love with, Orito Aibagawa. Jacob De Zoet, a practical and religious man, is honest to a fault. Among the Dutch lowlifes, he is both gasoline and match, in other words, and his zealous opposition to embezzling and skimming profits and black marketing make him many enemies. Orito has her own problems. A student of Dr. Marinus's, she attracts unwanted attention from the Japanese nobles (some "noble" and others vicious) when she dallies with the pale-skinned, auburn-haired Jacob. When she disappears, the novel takes off to some of the more exotic locales mentioned early in this review.

Some readers may struggle with the number of Japanese names and characters, especially at the "nunnery," but Mitchell at least is studious in his characterization and the special quirks he bestows to his creations. At times Mitchell can overwrite, too, when he should move on, but those instances are neither frequent nor extended. The book's best scenes come at the end when the added dimension of a British frigate is provided. The match of wits between Capt. Penhaligon and De Zoet when Dejima is bottled up by the man-of-war is a joy to read. Mitchell is at his best when dealing with the psychological and the power of decisions made in moments of crisis to alter history.

If you've had your fill of beach reads this summer, THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET is your antidote. It's serious contemporary literature by one of our more gifted scribes. It's a grown-up's book that contains not only incredible description but a sound plot. And no, it won't baby you with constant, hold-on-to-your-seat action, but you can handle that and you can appreciate a novel for its construction and its grander designs as well, right?

So why not give it a places-you'll-go?
Profile Image for Ken-ichi.
591 reviews545 followers
June 1, 2010
I've spent a week reading this very fine novel and a weekend attempting to unpack it, and I have little doubt I'll spend a good few years thinking about it from time to time. If one measure of a novel is its ability to simultaneously inspire and confound engagement, then Mitchell has once again turned it up to 11.

Most of the reviews I've been reading have remarked that this is Mitchell's most formally conventional novel (linear, third-person narrative), and that his often scintillating prose has been burnished to a more muted lustre, and for the most part these are accurate. There's less showmanship here, without any reduction in finesse. But in all Mitchell's novels, messages hide within the virtuosity, and this book's lack of embellishment brings them a little closer to the surface. We are tantalized with recurrent themes, unexplained symbols, ties between distant story lines (indeed, between entire novels!), and I've been having a hell of a time trying to reconstruct it all into some kind of meaning.

The reviews that have helped bring some coherence to my thoughts, though, are those by the Irish Times and the Times of London, both of which point out the importance of bridging divides between people, cultures, worlds. Dejima is a bridge between Europe and Japan. Its denizens are interpreters, tradesmen, and scientists, all disciplines that form bridges between people (language, goods, knowledge). Characters constantly bridge the gap between each other and between them and the reader by recounting their backstories in Scooby-Doo-esque wavy-screened flashbacks. Jacob and Uzaemon are united by books, and later by Orito. Jacob and Orito by love, letters, and language. Marinus and his Japanese colleagues by medicine and botany.

Dejima, like other frontiers, is also a crucible for morality, and we are constantly reminded of what can befall those who fail to bridge divides and continue to see other people and cultures as entirely alien. Corruption is rampant, as well as infidelity. The Dutch and the Japanese habitually try to cheat each other, just as they play and betray their own countrymen. Slavery and subjugation are implicitly and explicitly addressed again and again (like in Cloud Atlas).

It was interesting to me that there were very clear-cut Good Guys and Bad Guys. The Good Guys (de Zoet, Orito, Marinus, Uzaemon) are all truth-seekers of sorts. Jacob crunches numbers and uncovers corruption. Orito and Marinus are scientists. Uzaemon studies the true meaning of words. They all also have internal, non-relativistic moral codes that burn just as brightly on foreign soil as at home, and allow them to recognize kindred fires abroad. Jacob standing on the watch tower, or Marinus decrying the beating of a slave. Orito choosing to save others despite her imprisonment, and Uzaemon abandoning his steady, obedient life to destroy the temple.

The Bad Guys (Enomoto, Vorstenbosch, Capt. Lacy, Fischer) are universally self-interested, and view others as stepping stones, chattel, or even food. Enomoto is a bit of a mystery to me, though. He's a mustache-twirling, finger-tenting immortal super villain who has magic powers and eats babies. In a thoroughly researched, realistic historical novel, he kind of stands out. I suspect that aside from entertainment, his presence and exit are actually meant to demonstrate what evil is *not*. He's the only bad guy who gets his comeuppance, as if the only evils that can be truly vanquished are the imaginary ones. As Grote says, "'Tain't good intentions what paves the road to hell: it's self-justifyin's" (p. 104), and as Enomoto himself says, "Evil, evil evil. You always wield that word as if it were a sword and not a vapid conceit" (p. 309). Evil is not discrete or separate, nor can it be nicely excised. All the more human transgressors survive, even prosper.

Anyway, those are the things that seem to make sense to me about this novel.

Here are a few things that don't:

What the hell was up with the constant interruption of quotes?! For example:

'Chief van Cleef,' Fischer calls after him, 'and I shall discuss your insolence!'
'It's a long way,' Ivo Oost smokes in a doorway, 'down to the bottom...'
'It is my signature,' Fischer shouts after him, 'that authorizes your wages!' (p. 166)


The majority of quotes are written this way. In an unknown author, I might attribute this to a weird lexical tick, but Mitchell is a careful, meticulous writer capable of adopting many different voices and styles, so I think this has to be intentional. But what does it mean? I'm guessing the form has some relation to Japanese literature or poetry, but I don't know enough to make a connection.

Mitchell also repeatedly employs this weird interleaving of interior and exterior monologue. An example from the Phoebus, as Cpt. Penhaligon listens to a sermon:

'"And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared..."'
The common run of chaplains is either too meek for so unruly a flock...
'"...and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved..."'
...or else, so zealous that the sailors ignore, scorn or vilify them.
'"...was then taken away. But after long abstinence Paul stood forth...'"
Chaplain Wily, an oysterman's son from Whistable, is a welcome exception.
(p. 328)


These passages are almost unreadable. Perhaps they are there both to contrast truth as thought and truth as communicated (the bridge), and to demonstrate how utterly discordant the two can be.

Animals: a moth witnesses birth at the start, and a butterfly witnesses death at the finish. Orito speaks to cats and rats in moments of drug-induced madness, and William Pitt the monkey bears witness to the tribulations on Dejima. Nature does not play an overt role in this book (or in any Mitchell novel?), but natural elements seem be deliberately included. Simply mneomnic rigging, or is there more explicit allegory at play?


And finally, my notes.


puerperal (adj): adj form of puerpera, a woman who has just given birth. (p. 8)

yakumoso (n): a bit of searching of suggests this is some member of the genus Leonurus, maybe Leonurus japonicus . Apparently it's commonly used in Asian folk medicine, just as the related motherwort is used in European folk medicine. As with so many folk remedies, it seems to treat just about everything, though there apparently are some papers about antimicrobial properties.

farrago (n): hodgepodge, mixture. (p. 11)

carrack (n): a kind of merchant ship. (p. 15)

"The pain is prismatic." (p. 45) I kind of hate it when authors employ literally floral language when describing pain (delicate pain, pain blossoming, etc). I like "prismatic."

provedore (n): a purveyor or provider? How do they relate to stevedores? Prove gives the hard tack to Steve and Steve loads it onto the boat? Why isn't anyone named "Prove"? Why?! (p. 56)

"Deflate your testicles comme à la mode: via the village pimp or Sin of Onan." (p. 58). Sadly, it doesn't take much to make me laugh. As usual, though, the Bible is funnier: "And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also" (Genesis 38:10). Old Testament God held no truck with half-assed punishment like mere blindness!

glister (n): alternate spelling of "clyster," which is an archaic term for an enema (had to rely on Wikipedia for the alternate orthography, but "clyster" is in my abbreviated OED). This scene is both horrid and hilarious. I love Dr. Marinus. (p. 66)

dithyrambic (adj): a dithyramb was a form a Greek song and dance involving a large group of men and boys dancing in a circle. Apparently it had a unique meter, but not sure what it was. (p. 69)

chandler (n): candle-maker. (p. 100)

splenetic (adj): pertaining to the spleen, irritable. (p. 109)

langer (n): apparently an all-purpose disparagement in County Cork, Ireland. Wikipedia and this page have interesting perspectives on the history of the word (as does this performance of The Langer Song!). If the east Indian simian etymology is correct, though, Con Twomey would have been a bit ahead of his time in speaking it, despite being a Corkman. (p. 111)

bourse (n): an exchange or market. (p. 114)

monorchid (n): a man with only one testicle. Let me take a moment to assure you that that the somewhat juvenile selection of words here reflects the rather puerile condition of my own predilections and not the overall tenor of the novel. The word "orchid" apparently derives from the Greek word órkhis, meaning "testicle." I always chuckled when I read about the "scrotum-like" flowers of the Pink lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule). Now I realize I should have been chuckling a lot more! (p. 118)

"Act, implores the Ghost of Future Regret. I shan't give you another chance." (p. 123)

manumission (n): manumit means "to free from slavery" (the etymology seems to be something like "emit from one's hand"). This passage sets off a debate about slavery. (p. 129)

"'So it is the sulphur of Jean Calvin,' says the Irishman, in English, 'making war on my nostrils.'" Jean Calvin as in the eponymous progenitor of Calvinist Christian doctrine, to which the Dutch de Zoet would probably subscribe. That went right over my head. (p. 151)

moxibustion (n): a form of East-Asian medicine involving mugwort, which is apparently dried and burned, or actually burned into the skin. (p. 174)

Maria and Iesu-sama: I had no idea there were all these Christians in Japan! Spanish and Portuguese Jesuits brought Christianity to Japan in the 16th century and apparently it was so popular the Shogunate saw it as the preliminary incursion of European imperialism, and made moves to snuff it (including killing lots of people and instituting the ritual of fumi-e), resulting in Japan's legendary seclusionist policy that lasted until the Perry Expedition in the 19th century. I know so, so little about history. Sigh. (p. 178)

febrifuge (n): drug to reduce fever, also known as an antipyretic. (p. 193)

Van Diemen's Land (pn): another name for Tasmania. The indigenous Palawa went extinct after encountering Europeans. (p. 199)

"Men of commerce, sir [...:] for the most part, had their consciences cut out at birth. Better an honest drowning than slow death by hypocrisy, law or debt." Ah, a man after my own heart (p. 332)

"Ibani qui poterant [...:] qui non potuere cadebant." I think there's a typo and it should be Ibant qui poterant, qui non potuere cadebant, which means "Those who could have gone, those who could not have fallen," which seems appropriate. I guess Marinus is referring to this pastel by Dutch painter Cornelis Troost, but the painting seems to depict drunken party-goers trying to head home. A joke, I guess. Where in Hell does Mitchell get this stuff. (p. 366)

podagra (n): synonym for gout (p. 375)

bagnio (n): literally a bath house, though in this sense probably whore house. (p. 381)

ingravescent (adj): gradually worsening. I like how even the Cpt. objects to the arcane language. Not that I'm objecting. I'm doing the opposite. (p. 407)

"Reverse our reverses" Penhaligon, Shiroyama, and Marinus all employ this phrase. To what end, Mitchell?! (p. 429)

Regarding the V-sign and the Battle of Agincourt: as I dimly recalled while reading this passage, the French supposedly threatened to cut off the first two fingers of English longbowmen, and the English thus used those same fingers to taunt the vanquished French. However, Wikipedia claims the story is apocryphal, and that the gesture's first recorded use dates to the early 20th century. (p. 430)

Quid non mortalia pectora cogis, Auri sacra fames. Apparently from The Aeneid, this translation has it as, "Cursed lust of gold, to what dost thou not force the heart of man?" (p. 431)
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,095 reviews3,838 followers
November 1, 2015
A shooting star lives and dies in an instant.

I first read this when it was published in paperback, just because it was by Mitchell. I admired the craft of the writing, but overall, I did not enjoy it as much as I hoped: I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, and this seemed a very straightforward narrative in comparison with three of his four preceding books.

Now in 2014, after reading The Bone Clocks, I discover that is the second in the Marinus trilogy and this was the first. Almost immediately, I returned to this, and oh how utterly different and more complex it turns out to be. So much was hiding in plain sight. This book really demonstrates the enormous canvass of the uber-book that Mitchell is planning years ahead, over many volumes, some more closely connected than others.

An autumn breeze drags its invisible robes around the fine room.

Note: It’s hard to manage all my interconnected reviews of Mitchell’s books, but they are all here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list...

What sort of novel is this?

This is a single, largely chronological, story, told in three main sections.

A gibbous moon is grubby. Stars are bubbles trapped in ice.

It is a work of exhaustively researched historical fiction, set in the Dutch concession of Dejima in Japan (a closed, artificial island, within a nation of islands closed to the world), at the crossover of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dejima was Japan’s only window on the rest of the world and Europe’s only window on Japan. Windows are a leitmotif throughout, and Land of A Thousand Autumns is one of the names Japan was known by.

It’s also very much the story of two men who love the same, apparently unattainable, woman.

Dawn breathes muddy greens and ember reds through grey woods.

There’s an escape attempt, a rescue mission, secret messages, and a battle, but still pretty conventional.

More quirkily, there is a constant smattering of exquisite once-sentence images, almost like haiku. (I’ve sprinkled some in this review, as you’ve probably noticed.)

Marigolds in the vase are the precise shade of summer, remembered.

There are useful historical notes and a list of characters at the back.

But it is also a book with a hidden understory: the cover, foreword and afterword do not even hint at any of the… less factual aspects that link it to The Bone Clocks. So it is two books in one – depending whether you know more about Marinus when you read this.

Wisteria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall.

Whereas The Bone Clocks overtly pre-empts possible criticism and highlights deus ex machina moments, this is subtler, except once: “You’d think these coincidences’d not happen, not off the stage, not in life”, but there aren’t that many of them here.

Plot

The notes of luminous sonatas hang like grapes from the stave.

On a first reading, the plot was at the forefront; rereading after The Bone Clocks, the plot is more of a framework for the ideas within. Nevertheless:

It opens with a life and death scene: the delivery of the local Magistrate’s son. However, most of the first section covers the arrival of young, shrewd, clever, honourable clerk, Jacob de Zoet, whose father and uncle were pastors. He is to investigate anomalies in the company accounts.

A doe cries for her yearling, slaughtered.

We glimpse this beguiling and unfamiliar world, with its complex language (foreigners weren’t allowed to learn it) and rigid ritual, through his eyes. There’s plenty of wheeling and dealing and politics, within the Dutch community and between them and the Japanese – above and below board in both cases. Business isn’t what it was, which increases tension and the Dutch desire for more copper. In addition, Jacob falls for a Japanese midwife, Orito, who has a burn scar on her face and is a student of Dutch doctor Marinus.

The second section concerns a secretive and increasingly sinister mountain shrine, run by the powerful Abbot Enomoto, purportedly to bring fertility to the surrounding area. Monks and nuns are kept apart, mostly, and a new nun is sent, effectively sold by her step-mother to cover her dead father’s debts. This section relates most closely to The Bone Clocks, but also has echoes of .

Glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filer it, to chalk dust.

The third section has a single British warship, to “plunder the Dutch and seduce the Japanese" now that the Dutch parent company is bankrupt. Lots of twists (it’s hard to know who is on which side and what their intentions really are), compounded by a captain troubled by gout and, especially, side-effects of its treatment.

There are two short sections at the end, each set a few years later, tidying up Jacob’s life story. He achieves a degree of immortality though being painted; The artist “wondered at his air of melancholy distance, but exorcised the ghost of absence from the finished painting.”

Crows smear rumours across the melted, sticky sky.

Themes

All Mitchell’s favourite themes are covered with a light touch: slavery and other abuses of power are at the core, but also islands and rescue; souls, life, death, mortality and immortality; music (Marinus is a skilful pianist); bridges from one place or state to another, going full circle.

This last is illustrated when Jacob encourages a ladybird to pass from one hand to the other and back again, “The ladybird believes… she is on a momentous journey, but she is going nowhere.”

The first is addressed by Marinus, speaking out against slavery, "In the animal kingdom... the vanquished are eaten", which echoes a more chilling line in Cloud Atlas, “‘The weak are meat, the strong do eat.’… One fine day, a purely predatory world SHALL consume itself.” Others see the world differently, “Power is a man’s means… of composing the future.”

Fallen red leaves drift over a smeared sun held in dark water.

There is also a wonderful passage where a slave ponders the meaning of his state: “Slaves do not own. Slaves are owned.” This includes a spoon carved from a bone, for himself. “He fathered his children, yes. But to his master they are not ‘his’… My true name, my memories are things I own.” Later, “The word ‘my’ brings pleasure. The word ‘my’ brings pain.”

Connections with other Mitchell works

• Marinus is a significant character in this, and in The Bone Clocks. With echoes of all the comets in Cloud Atlas, he is described as entering “like a limping, grey-haired comet”. A shooting star is also mentioned as a throwaway line (listed in Quotes).
• There is passing mention of a “beautiful sunken garden”, tying in with the opera, The Sunken Garden, for which Mitchell wrote the libretto.
• The captain of the British ship, Phoebus, is Penhaligon, presumably an ancestor of Jonny Penhaligon in The Bone Clocks.
• Con Twomey reveals his real name is Fiacre Muntervary, presumably an ancestor of Mo Muntervary in Ghostwritten, Number9dream and The Bone Clocks.
• Arie Grote is pally with Jacob, and in The Bone Clocks, Marinus remembers him fondly.

A feathery fish hovers in the current; a bright berry floats by.

Secrets in plain sight

There are many comments from two characters in the book that are taken as metaphors or hyperbole by those they’re speaking to and by many readers. However, in Mitchell’s world, they are true.

Arising from The Bone Clocks:

On a round rock, an immobile heron waits for fish.

Language, translation and stories

“A joke is a secret language… inside words.”

A gardener rakes the white stones by the bronze pond.

The problematic politics of trading is compounded by complex Japanese etiquette and ritual, but also the difficulties of translation, as is cleverly demonstrated. “Interpreters often have to provide both the answer and the tools to understand it”, but even so, there are words in Dutch and Japanese that have no easy translation into the other, giving scope for misunderstanding, whether accidental, or, sometimes, deliberate, and even then it may be for politeness, to deceive, or to insult.

All literature involves translation to some extent: from author’s mind to reader’s interpretation. That is even more so with a book like this, where little can be taken at face value.

Dark clouds clot and the dusk is silted with insects and bats.

Mitchell writes beautiful lines, but he is fundamentally a storyteller, and we all need stories: “It is stories… that make life… tolerable”, which prompts Orito to picture “the human mind as a loom that weaves disparate threads of belief, memory and narrative into an entity shoes common name is Self.” Myth matters, too, but “The truth of a myth… is not its words but its patterns.”

Spirituality, especially persimmons

This is not my domain, and others have covered it far better than I can. In particular, Calico: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

The darkness opposite stirs and quickens into the form of a cat.

Nevertheless, it’s plain that Mitchell continues his interest in Eastern beliefs, without ever preaching, although Marinus explicitly discusses migration of souls and karma with Jacob. The persimmon is more dominant in this book.

The cover of my copy has a Japanese woman holding out a persimmon, and in the book Orito gives one to Jacob, which he finds very sensual and she later dreams about. One of the Hidden Christians has a muddled theology that includes “Adam and Ewa who stole… [the] sacred persimmon”. And one of the haiku-like lines features one (and it’s actually 5-7-5), “A tiny girl skips like a skinny frog around a persimmon tree”.

The persimmon has so many echoes of other fruit: the apple in Eden (and also The Bone Clocks) and Persephone being trapped in the underworld because she ate some pomegranate seeds, to name but two.

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch.

Then there’s Orito, the midwife: bringing new life into the world, but also wielding the power of death by some of the choices she makes.

Quotes
• “Ink… you most fecund of liquids.”
• “An ink brush… is a skeleton key for a prisoner’s mind.”
• “Nagasaki itself… looks oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes.”
• “The oarsmen propelled… by ‘sweeping’ their oars in the manner of a water-snake, in time to a breathy shanty.”
• “Arie Grote had a grin full of holes and a hat made of shark-hide.”
• “Immortality comes at a steep price.”
• “Power has an unpleasant taste.”
• “Dust thickens the air, corroding the sun.”
• In an earthquake, “Glass panes shatter into false diamonds, timber cracks like bones.”
• “Small fire-boats float on sea to guide souls home.” Jacob is stunned the Japanese “believe souls migrate in such a manner.”
• “A bat… chased by its own furry turbulence.”
• “The soul is a verb… not a noun.”
• “A reluctant window in the Deputy’s House is opened.”
• “The percussion of dripping water.”
• “The river below is a drunk, charging boulders and barging banks.”
• “Darkens uncoils and slides around the edges of Orito’s vision.”
• “Winter woods are creaking, knitted and knotted. Dead leaves lie in deep drifts. Needle-tips of birdsong stitch and thread the thicket’s many layers.”
• “The night sky is an indecipherable manuscript.”
• A “tray descending the ladder of servitude” to be refilled.
• “Sleep kisses his eyelids. The dreamlight is dappled.”
• “A house on the hill spews oily smoke in the wet and falling air.”
• “Insects encrust the cabin’s window, drawn by the bright lamp.”
• “A pigeon trills on the high window ledge.”
• “Creation’s light is pure on the papered window.”
• “A black dog wails on an outcrop.”
• “The moon-grey cat inspects the fish indifferently,”
• “The rain’s innumerable hoofs clatter on the streets and roofs.”
• “In the clear water a shoal of silver fish changes direction.”
• “Kawasemi’s kitten skitters after a dragonfly across the polished veranda.”
• “A maple leaf, fiery and fingered, is blown to the Magistrate’s side.”
• “A cockchaffer twitches its twin whiskers in the shadow of his inkwell.”
• “An invisible woodpecker works in short bursts on a nearby
• “Warblers call and query, higher up the hidden mountain."


Original Review from 2011
A good, and exhaustively researched historical novel, but I didn't enjoy it as much as Mitchell's previous books, despite a life-and-death opening. Indeed, life and death is a continuing theme, both of individuals (a major character is a midwife) and of culture and empire. I was expecting greater variety from Mitchell. It turns out my mistake was to view this as a standalone novel, when actually, it the precursor to The Bone Clocks (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... and https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...).
And Mitchell plans a trilogy (a slightly odd concept, given how connected all his novels are to each other).

PLOT
Jacob de Zoet is an ambitious and upstanding young clerk. In 1799, he arrives in Dejima, the Dutch concession in Japan, and the only port which traded with the rest of the world. He has five years to prove himself an acceptable son-in-law and is honourable, empathetic, clever and keen to learn. However, he has to negotiate the complexities of Japanese etiquette and Dutch-Japanese relations, as well as plots, embezzlement and love, whilst retaining his principles and furthering his ambitions. Mitchell's knowledge of and love for Japan shines through (he lived there for several years, and his wife is Japanese).

The sights, sounds, smells and whole atmosphere of Dejima are very vivid, but I found the much shorter passages set in a mountain shrine/convent more compelling plot-wise. However, that is more of a reflection of my tastes than Mitchell's writing.

LANGUAGE
I love the importance Mitchell attaches to language, both by demonstrating powerful imagery and more explicit praise of the power of the written word, such as "An ink-brush... is a skeleton key for a prisoner's mind". The book also explores issues of translation: the mischief to be had, along with the difficulties it can present.

SLAVERY
Another fascinating digression was a chapter as a first-person but unsentimental examination of the problems of being a slave (damned if you do and damned if you don't). He owns nothing except for his thoughts, and even then can cause problems. "The word 'my' brings pleasure. The word 'my' brings pain. These are true words for masters as well as slaves." This focus on power and exploitation is something that ties it to all Mitchell's other works.

FAVOURITE IMAGES
"A cacophony of frogs detonates."
"A hairy beggar kneeling over a puddle of vomit turns out to be a dog."
"The yeasty moon is caged in his half Japanese half Dutch window... glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filter it, to chalk dust."
"Light bleeds in around the casements: Jacob navigates the archipelago of stains across the low wooden ceiling."
Someone "savours his victory under an ill-fitting mask of empathy."
"An Oriental typhoon possesses a sentience and menace. Daylight is bruised."
"Birds are notched on the low sky. Autumn is aging."
"The weaverless loom of fortune" - is that godless predestination?
Someone's "face speaks of fatherlessness, name-calling and resilience".
"A face like his belongs on a cathedral gutter."
"The Oriental rain is fine as lace on the sailors' leathern faces."

LINKS WITH OTHER BOOKS
I have read all Mitchell's previous books and I thought this was the only one that does not have any explicit links to any of the others (beyond familiar themes of mortality, predacity, islands). The nearest I spotted was perhaps a nod at the title of his best-known work, "West to East, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds" and the fact that Jacob is somewhat similar character to Adam Ewing in "Cloud Atlas" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).

However, in this interview about the book, Mitchell points out (1:30) "at least four" links to his other books, including that Adam Ewing's ship (from Cloud Atlas) is seen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNpwR...

Update: This is effectively a prequel to The Bone Clocks, in which Marinus is a major character, and Mitchell has said there will be a trilogy of Marinus books. There is another strong carry-over element from this to The Bone Clocks as well (the immortality-seeking cult). So Jacob is not as much of a straightforward historical novel as it initially seemed.

I've written two, very different reviews of The Bone Clocks. They're with all my Mitchell reviews, here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list...

Japanese Creation Myth
Calico has written a fascinating review of Cloud Atlas that focuses on Japanese and western religious and philosophical aspects: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

He also pointed me to a Wikipedia page on the subject that is especially pertinent to the early sections of this book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese...

INTERVIEW WITH MITCHELL
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOCTi...
(found by Ian, whose excellent review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...)
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews2,893 followers
February 5, 2019
It's been a while since I read and loved this the first time and in the interim Mitchell has written two books which have caused me to think less of him as a novelist - The Bone Clocks and Slade House, both of which for me had a kind of juvenile silliness running through them. Therefore I was a bit worried of spoiling my wonderful memory of this book. Didn't happen though. I loved it from start to finish. Usually my awful memory is a cause of frustration. Only perhaps when rereading novels does it become a blessing. This is very much an adventure story so prior knowledge of twists and outcomes would take away some of the pleasure.

Mitchell's ventriloquism is at the height of its ingenuity here. Language plays a big part in this novel. Mitchell is writing in English about people who are speaking both Dutch and Japanese. Translators abound. It's a kind of marvel how effortlessly he resolves the difficult problem of both dramatizing and fluidly smoothing out all the language barriers. Mitchell here is speaking up for the cross pollination of cultures, for universal inclusion rather exclusion, for the bringing down of state walls.

Hierarchies of power (bullying) are a constant Mitchell theme and feature heavily again here. We have two wholly autonomous characters, one representing good and the other evil; everyone else in the novel is a prisoner of some kind; sometimes of an ailing body, sometimes of a hopeless love and often of the master/servant social role prevalent at the time. The enclosed Dutch trading post on the Japanese coast is a prison of sorts as is the inland temple where the action sometimes takes place and as is the English ship that arrives to do battle with the Dutch enclave.

Super clever too how he often deploys haiku for ambient detail between lines of dialogue which, replacing long-winded background passages, keeps the pace of the novel urgent.

Another thing struck me and that's how rarely any author will take the side of a foreign power against his own country in a political dispute. When, in a fabulous scene, the Dutch and English stand off, each power represented by an individual, we (or me as a Brit) are very much sympathising with the foreigner. A nice knee in the groin to sweeping nationalist conceit.

While reading I began thinking there's something quietly revolutionary about how this novel (and Hilary Mantel's Cromwell novels) tackles historical fiction. I was recalling a couple of 20th century historical fiction novels I've recently read that were so weighted down with detailed research, with the strain of evoking authenticity, that they were like overloaded ships struggling to keep afloat. But I couldn't quite put my finger on what new quality this novel has. After all, there have been mischievous, free-flowing, almost cinematic forays into historical fiction by great authors of the past. One thinks of Tolstoy and Dickens, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. So how to describe the exciting freshness and vitality of Mitchell's storytelling techniques? I'm not sure I can!
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,375 reviews3,192 followers
September 16, 2021
The main hero is surrounded with perfidy on all sides - greedy and perfidious compatriots, secretive and treacherous natives, conniving and wily invaders.
We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love.

He is the only man brave enough to love but he is paid with hatred. But "hatred eats haters" so in the end the honesty and reason win.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is like an incredible journey through time and space to the distant and enigmatic land.
Profile Image for Adina.
779 reviews2,955 followers
February 7, 2022
Read 2016/ proofread 2022

I had this book on radar for a long time. I was sure it was going to be a success with me as I am a fan of historical fiction set in Japan, ever since I devoured Shogun as a child. I am particularly interested in the period depicted in this book and in the relationship between foreigners and Japanese people. Perfect book, then. Well...not really.

The first part of the book was promising. I enjoyed the story about the Japanese trading port of Dejima, the diversity of the people working there and Jacob de Zoet's struggles. However, everything changed when the narrative plan moved to the shrine. I thought it to be creepy, unreal and felt like it did not fit in with the previous story. I could not make myself care for Orito's fate, her lover (do not remember his name) and I soon forgot Jacob ever existed. By the time the author turned back to him I just didn't care anymore. I wanted the book to be over. With 200 pages to go I was so bored that I read another five books before forcing myself to finish.

When I read a good book I fell myself entering the book, being part of it. With David Mitchell's book I thought there was a wall between me and the story. I thought it was soulless probably due to the effort he employed to write beautiful sentences and to impress.

After seeing Cloud Atlas and reading many reviews of his works I was sure Mitchell will become one of my favorite writers. I feel so disappointed that I did not like him more. I might try another of his work but it won't be soon.
Profile Image for tim.
66 reviews61 followers
June 15, 2010
Since discovering David Mitchell a little over a year ago, I have devoured all five of his novels to date. Yet I still cannot say what it is that keeps me impatiently coming back for more.

He is a master of voices. He breathes life into characters quickly and effortlessly. He is not afraid to dive into the unknowable mysteries embedded within us. Time, life, dreams, death. Without the crutches of belief or disbelief, he dances around questions of the soul. His villains are ofttimes as compelling as his heroes, differing only in their intentions. Every word is written with a highly tuned sense of the present moment. Always now.

And still, any list of Mitchell’s qualities will not satisfactorily add up to why I get so much out of his writing. Regardless, within the first page or two in all of his books, I knew I was in good hands and could safely give in to what this reader does best--read.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,855 reviews1,885 followers
July 18, 2017
Rating: two headachey stars out of five

The Publisher Says: In 1799, Jacob de Zoet disembarks on the tiny island of Dejima, the Dutch East India Company’s remotest trading post in a Japan otherwise closed to the outside world. A junior clerk, his task is to uncover evidence of the previous Chief Resident’s corruption.

Cold-shouldered by his compatriots, Jacob earns the trust of a local interpreter and, more dangerously, becomes intrigued by a rare woman—a midwife permitted to study on Dejima under the company physician. He cannot foresee how disastrously each will be betrayed by someone they trust, nor how intertwined and far-reaching the consequences.

Duplicity and integrity, love and lust, guilt and faith, cold murder and strange immortality stalk the stage in this enthralling novel, which brings to vivid life the ordinary—and extraordinary—people caught up in a tectonic shift between East and West.

My Review: This book is very pleasantly written, taken line by line, and is an interesting window onto a time I find underexplored. De Zoet himself makes me want to scream, and Orito is so unlikely a heroine that I found myself snorting a lot. I've heard lots of carrying on about how many characters there were in the book, but this presented no problem for me, not sure why.

Perhaps this is a case of overselling a book, I don't know. I doubt it, frankly; I think I'd be chucking it in the charity bin if it was written by Schmoopie de Zoet, Jacob's great-great-grandchild. It's too many books manhandled into one. It's too much idea for too little room to explore it. It's too wrought, worked over, etched and scrimshawed and chased and gilded and MADE, for me to forget I'm reading a book and instead experience a story.

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Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,162 reviews9,032 followers
November 24, 2012
THE APPRENTICE

WEEK 6 - THE SEMI-FINAL





Voiceover : Lord Sugar is looking for a historical novelist to invest in. He scoured the country for the very best. Twelve were selected to begin the process. After six weeks of hard battling, only three are left.* It's the Apprentice Week Six!

(We see a montage of the three remaining contestants, David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters frantically typing away on laptops).

This week's task : to write a complete historical novel in only seven days. All the sleepless nights, wrecked marriages and substance addictions have come down to this. The novels are written, and Lord Sugar's verdict is in.

He has sat through all three power-point presentations.
He has cross-checked certain details with Wikipedia.
He has read all three books.
Hilary, Sarah and David are back in the boardroom.
One of them will be fired tonight.

Lord Sugar speaks

I've had a chance to look through your novels and I gotta say I got a few problems. I'd say there's a fair amount of waffle going on. I'm a businessman and I can tell you you can't build a business empire on waffle. I like things to be plain and simple. That's the way I am. All this fancy pants stuff is not where I'm coming from. This one here, Hilary, this is yours isn't it, A Place of Greater Safety. I mean… with the best will in the world it's very long, there's a lot of words in it. I got that it's about the French revolution, I did get that far, you'll be relieved to know. But all that yapping. I had problems with that.



Sarah, yours I thought was okay – Fingersmith, good title. The story zipped along, I liked that. But you seem to have to drag lesbians into everything and I'm not sure the public particularly wants lesbians all over. You don't see market stalls piled high with lesbians do you.



(Sarah shakes head & looks abashed.)



So I had a few problems there. David, yours was very smart, all those ten dollar words, I could feel your brains throbbin away when I read it but… it didn't have much energy. You might think that of the three this thousand Autumns of whats his name would appeal to me, because the first part is about business, and it must have been very interestin to be the first lot of businessmen who made contact with Japan and got a monopoly on all of the import export of a whole country… Very interesting. That appealed to me. I could see the frustrations of having poor auditing and no phones. But this thing about that midwife? Nah. It was old hat. I seen it before a million times. It was in South pacific, same thing. Did you see that musical? (David shakes head.) Well you shoulda seen it before you put pen to paper. So that went nowhere fast. I must say I came up the hard way and I haven't had the luxury of yearning for Japanese midwives.

So this was a difficult decision, as you know one of you will be leaving the process tonight. You've done well to get through to the semi-final. Don't let anyone take that away from you. So hmm. Er… I have come to a decision. You may think you are creatin … what do they call it – literature but you still need to get bums on pages, to coin a phrase. You have to sell to Joe Public and not just to Miss Josephine Public. If you get my drift. So, with regret, David Mitchell, you're fired.









* Previous rounds split the historical novelists into two teams, who would compete on a particular task. Previous tasks included
- describe a day in the life of Genghiz Khan
- write a mini-series for television starting from the premise that when the two maries visited the tomb they discovered the Jesus was a robot
- run a bookshop for a week using gibbons as shop assistants
Week six is the semi-final
Profile Image for Samadrita.
295 reviews4,466 followers
September 12, 2014
A transient, dubious point of intersection with a secluded, floating world. Two disparate spheres of influence navigating a treacherous turn of the century wherein the actions of either will determine the course of future events. A clash of civilizations where all involved parties are unwilling to cede even something as basic as acknowledgement to the other. Races laboring under the virulent delusion that skin color predetermines superiority or inferiority. Love in the time of prejudice and mutual suspicion.

And a heady Mitchellite cocktail concocted out of these ingredients. So pardon me if I rate this 5 stars despite agreeing with the negatives pointed out by several reviewers who considered the book lacking in a central focus. Because sometimes a purported fatal flaw in a narrative becomes its very strength. The absence of a pivot, upon which the entire story hinges, made the task of deducing Mitchell's motives behind plotting it this way all the more appealing to me.

What is the purpose of historical fiction anyway? To visualize the bygone through the lenses of acquired knowledge in the intervening time period? To dissect the evil that men have done with the scalpel of reason? To extract the small kernel of eternal truth residing at the heart of every significant event of the past? To establish the sheer timelessness of the bipolarity of human nature that makes the wheel of cause-and-effect turn and turn?

Mitchell has accomplished all of the above with the gift of his unmatched story-telling. In addition, he has managed to break out of the mold of genre tropes altogether by letting the age itself become the core of this tale instead of the eponymous Jacob de Zoet or 'The Land of a Thousand Autumns' (Japan). It's like Mitchell were opening up a portal in time to give us a glimpse into mankind's cautious toeing of the shifting lines of demarcation between the Orient and the Occident.
'Then this...'Jacob sweeps his hand inland '...this numinous Orient....its bells, its dragons, its millions...Here, notions of transmigrations, of karma, which are heresies at home, possess a...a...' The Dutchman sneezes.
'Bless you.' Marinus splashes rainwater on his face. 'A plausibility?'

After sampling three of Mitchell's novels of epic scale and scope, there's one thing which I can state with conviction. When it comes to his creations, it's always a 'sum of its parts' approach that works best in evaluating the true worth of what he writes.

Good vs Evil - check
The significance of the individual will - check
Exploration of power and greed - check
Political intrigue - check
Slavery - check
Racism - check
Colonialism - check
British imperialism - check
Subtle criticism of misogyny - check
Women characters who matter - check
Ships, sailors and nautical jargon - check
Mitchell's love for Japan - check
Allusion to the brutal massacre of Indians in America's wild west - check
Triumph of passive resistance over the use of force - check
Pat on the back given to cultural synthesis - check
Conflict between the rational and the mystical - check
Multiple perspectives - check
Writing that inspires pure awe - check
A mind-boggling volume of small details - check
Too many things happening at the same time - check
Addictive, page-turner quality - check
Cleverly inserted connections to previous books () - check

I could probably keep adding to this list indefinitely, comfortable in the certainty that every single item on it will have my vigorous nod of approval.
Creation unfolds us, despite us and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we like to call it 'Love'.

Clerk Jacob de Zoet, the unlikely hero of our novel, could be another Adam Ewing from 'Cloud Atlas' or a version of Mitchell himself - a passive observer of human fallacies stranded in a zone of conflict where all participants have reluctantly negotiated an uneasy truce, an oblivious witness to a crucial juncture in history. But the moment he steps out of his comfort zone to act in accordance with the dictates of his conscience and will, history's engines, which had been so far been trundling along at a self-assured pace towards greater mishaps, are derailed. A throwback to the whole Nietzschean will to power which formed the backbone of Cloud Atlas is it not?
This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

In the shadowy, gray region between consciousness and oblivion, at the precipice of life, when he is physically separated from 'The Land of a Thousand Autumns' by thousands of miles, Dutch de Zoet hears the whispers of a waxed (Japanese) paper door opening and senses the spiritual presence of Orito, the Japanese midwife he loved all his life.
I cannot imagine a more poignant affirmation of the insignificance of borderlines.
...So little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to co-exist, than seek to disprove...
Profile Image for Kinga.
475 reviews2,123 followers
December 16, 2015
David Mitchell and I had not been introduced before. I knew he had written something about clouds and dreams and this looked pretty so I took it home with me.

It is a book about Jacob de Zoet, who in 1799 arrives as a clerk on Dejima, an artificial island near Nagasaki and the only point of contact between Japan and the outside world. It is also a book about an English ship and a mountain shrine and secret religious cult. It is a book about Orito, Japanese midwife whose face is half burnt but the book's most noble characters seem to fall in love with despite that. This book is about so many things in so many different ways that it is rather hard to write anything coherent about the plot. Mitchell has one hell of imagination (and patience for research) and I was left in awe. “The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is tour de force, and unlike the blurb writers, I don’t use this term lightly. Writing this novel must’ve been a massive undertaking but I am not sure regular human beings like you and me can keep up with Mitchell as he jumps around like a flea.

The opening chapter blew me away and the first part of the book promised a solid historical novel. Then everything was turned around and we found ourselves in a Japanese shrine taken out straight from an airport bookshop bestseller. It was mysterious and romantic and a little bit silly. I thought: “David, really? I know that authors think they can get away with just about anything in the middle of the book but don’t you think you are pushing your luck a little bit here?”. David took my advice and abandoned the shrine plotline halfway through and took us back to Jacob de Zoet just when we forgot he was supposed to be the main character and stopped caring about him altogether. After an episode on an English ship starring a captain suffering from gout we get to the epilogue with Jacob de Zoet, as though Mitchell was convinced we needed a closure. As far as epilogues go this one was as unnecessary as the epilogue in the last Harry Potter book.

I really don’t know what to make out of this book. It read easily even if Mitchell has the most bizarre writing style ever. Oh boy, does he love his suspension points... They are everywhere... Sometimes to say that many things happen at once... she looked outside the window... As if we didn’t know that many things can happen at once... the washing machine started the spinning cycle… And on page 383 Mitchell uses suspension points 21 times... My flatmate’s alarm went off but he is still sleeping...

There was just too much of everything in this book and in the end it seems that all these things have cancelled each other out. Just what was I supposed to get out of this novel? What point (if any) was it trying to make?
Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy it, at times I enjoyed it a lot, even the airport paperback bits, but I think Mitchell’s imagination can be put to a much better use... Someone flushed the toilet...
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,114 reviews1,977 followers
December 5, 2018
So far my experiences with this author:
* Cloud Atlas 3 stars. I found it well written, interesting but ultimately confusing.
* The Bone Clocks 4 stars. I enjoyed this one very much.
* Slade House 5 stars. I loved this one totally!

Now what do I say about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?
Firstly can any one tell me what the title is supposed to mean?

Quick summary of my feelings about the book - beautifully written, perfect descriptions of the settings, interesting characters, a good story somewhat buried in the abundance of text. I liked it. I liked Jacob. I wished life had turned out better for him.
It is a book to remember.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
850 reviews2,087 followers
October 17, 2020
Exit Only Through the Sea Gate

"The Thousand Autumns" is set in Nagasaki over a period of almost 20 years beginning in 1799.

Dutch traders are restricted to an island in the harbour called "Dejima".

From the Japanese perspective, its name reflects the fact that it is an "exit island". Dutch ships arrive at and depart from the sea gate, while the Japanese officials and traders access the island through a land gate.

The Dutch are not permitted to enter Japan proper under the isolationist Sakoku policy. Thus, from their point of view, it is not a point of entry. As much as it represents the intersection of two cultures, it is more a place of confinement for the Dutch.

description

Fan-shaped Dejima

The Land of a Thousand Autumns

Jacob de Zoet inhabits this point of intersection. Nominally an earnest and trustworthy clerk who manages the books of account, he is also responsible for communication with the Japanese. He learns the language in order to negotiate, record and translate contractual documents. As a result, he has the greatest opportunity to learn about and appreciate Japanese people and culture.

He soon discovers that he shares an affinity with the Japanese translator Ogawa, one which extends to an affection for the midwife Orito, the daughter of a highly respected, but debt-ridden, samurai.

A Scroll of a Hundred Things

The novel begins with a birth and ends with a death. Orito is present physically at one and spiritually at the other. Both scenes contain some of the best writing I've ever read.

In between is a tightly-plotted, present-tense, third-person narrative that exploits the full potential of the characters as well as the clash of cultures: sovereignty, politics, property, jurisprudence, economics, trade, wealth, translation, diplomacy, protocol, etiquette, desire, love, intrigue, piety, worship, pilgrimage, medicine, midwifery, motherhood, sisterhood and religious orders.

This list might sound intimidating ("I could tell you a hundred things, and nothing at all"), but the tale prevails. Character and plot dominate. Post-modern gimmickry takes a back seat to a love story that is close to historical fiction.

The Author's Creation Unfolds

Mitchell describes love as an act of creation:

"Creation unfolds around us, despite us and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we call it 'Love'.

Needless to say, the love is illicit. Ultimately, the novel is the only evidence of its existence. It documents the fans and drawings and scrolls that captured it at the time. Like all great art and desire, it is both perpetrated and perpetuated by words and images.

description

Orito's fan (exchanged for a persimmon, )

The Ghost of Future Regret

Still, it is "a story that must move...and misfortune is motion. Contentment is inertia."

The "ghost of future regret" calls upon the infatuated Jacob to act impulsively: "I love her, comes the thought, as true as sunlight."

Spontaneity struggles with rules. Orito acts within the bounds of tradition, uncertain whether she wants the life of "a Dejima wife protected by a foreigner's money". Then:

"...the Land-Gate slams shut. The well-oiled bolt slides home."

A Master of Go

This is just the beginning. There is much to come yet. Only, unlike the game of Go that winds its way through the novel, there is no "clean board of lines and intersections":

"If only time was a sequence of considered moves and not a chaos of slippages and blunders."


You have to wonder whether this longing applies to the act of writing as well.

description

A Well-Waxed Paper Door Between Two Worlds

Mitchell's use of language is both highly functional and beautiful. Perfect sentences punctuate the action like jewels. Many have the aphoristic quality of haiku. He uses words like brush strokes:

"A tiny girl skips
Like a skinny frog around
A persimmon tree."

"Twilight is cold
With the threat of snow.
The forest's edges
Dissolve and blur.
A black dog waits
On an outcrop.
He senses a fox's hot stink.
His silver-haired mistress
Struggles up the twisted path.
A dead branch cracks
Under a deer's hoof
Across the loud stream.
An owl cries,
In this cedar or that fir...
Once, twice, near, gone."

"The House may own me,
But it shan't own Time."

"To list and name people
Is to subjugate them."

"The soul is a verb,
Not a noun."

"Be less ambitious
And more content."


For the first third of the novel, I wasn't sure where it was going or at what pace. However, the brushwork soon cohered, until a vivid picture emerged and the dynamic became irresistible. I read on, eager to learn whether the gate between the two worlds would open again. I can't tell you, but I hope you get to enjoy the experience as much as I did.

description


SOUNDTRACK:

Teenage Fanclub & Jad Fair - "Smile" (from the album "Words Of Wisdom And Hope")

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-f0D...

Steve Hackett - "Please Don't Touch" (Live)

https://youtu.be/qR3tmY-MDxw

The first instrumental section (roughly 2.5 minutes?) is a piece called "Land of a Thousand Autumns".

Mitchell reveals that this is one of the names Japan gave itself. The instrumental appeared on a 1978 album and precedes the novel.
Profile Image for Whitaker.
294 reviews493 followers
July 16, 2014
On Mitchell's Writing

Mitchell is one of my favourite writers, and I really have to squee about how masterfully he uses words. Here’s an example of his writing in this novel. Mitchell is setting a scene where Jacob is waiting in the antechamber to his new boss’s office. Along the walls of the antechamber are displayed specimens of exotic animals preserved in formaldehyde. As he looks at the specimens, Jacob recalls the events that led him to this place. Now Mitchell could have written it rather conventionally like this (and note that all I am doing is rearranging the exact wording that he uses with the sole addition indicated in square brackets.)
A pickled dragon of Kandy bears an uncanny resemblance to Anna’s father, and Jacob recalls a fateful conversation with the gentleman in his Rotterdam drawing-room. Carriages passed by below, and the lamplighter was doing his rounds. ‘Anna has told me,’ her father began, ‘the surprising facts of the situation, de Zoet and I have, accordingly, enumerated your merits and demerits. In the credit column: you are a fastidious clerk of good character who has not abused his advantage over Anna’s affections. In the debit column, you are a clerk: not a merchant, not a shipper or even a warehouse-master, but a clerk. I don’t doubt your affection. But affection is merely the plum in the pudding: the pudding itself is wealth.

[Jacob strolls from one pickled object to another as he recalls the unpleasant events of that day so long ago that has led him to this antechamber.] The Kandy dragon’s neighbour is a slack-jawed viper of the Celebes. A baby alligator from Halmahera has a demon’s delighted grin. The alligator’s umbilical cord is attached to its shell for all eternity. It was a posting to Halmahera from which Vorstenbosch rescued Jacob. A tortoise from the Island of Diego Garcia appears to be weeping. Jacob touches the jar of a Barbados lamprey with his broken nose. The lamprey’s O-shaped mouth is a grinding mill of razor-sharp Vs and Ws.
Instead, Mitchell writes it this way:
A pickled dragon of Kandy bears an uncanny resemblance to Anna’s father, and Jacob recalls a fateful conversation with the gentleman in his Rotterdam drawing-room. Carriages passed by below, and the lamplighter was doing his rounds. ‘Anna has told me,’ her father began, ‘the surprising facts of the situation, de Zoet …
The Kandy dragon’s neighbour is a slack-jawed viper of the Celebes.
‘… and I have, accordingly, enumerated your merits and demerits.
A baby alligator from Halmahera has a demon’s delighted grin.
‘In the credit column: you are a fastidious clerk of good character …
The alligator’s umbilical cord is attached to its shell for all eternity.
‘… who has not abused his advantage over Anna’s affections.
It was a posting to Halmahera from which Vorstenbosch rescued Jacob.
‘In the debit column, you are a clerk: not a merchant, not a shipper …
A tortoise from the Island of Diego Garcia appears to be weeping.
‘… or even a warehouse-master, but a clerk. I don’t doubt your affection.
Jacob touches the jar of a Barbados lamprey with his broken nose.
‘But affection is merely the plum in the pudding: the pudding itself is wealth.
The lamprey’s O-shaped mouth is a grinding mill of razor-sharp Vs and Ws.
I found this brilliantly done and highly effective. One of the challenges of narrative is its linear structure. However, we don’t live or experience events in a completely linear way. We might be loading clothes into the washing machine and having a conversation or listening to the radio while driving. There is a subtle interplay between both while we experience them, but how do you communicate that with words on a page—an essentially linear experience? The conventional manner of writing deals with it by setting it out as distinct blocks but telling us that these two distinct blocks of narrative are occurring simultaneously (and so I had to add, “Jacob strolls from one pickled object to another as he recalls the unpleasant events of that day so long ago that has led him to this antechamber.”) However, when we read it, we experience it not as a participant in the simultaneity but as discrete and sequential events. Mitchell breaks down that wall. Jacob’s thought processes as he walks from one specimen jar to another are laid out as we see what he sees: Mitchell comes close to achieving the experience of simultaneity in a linear narrative, which is an amazing achievement. At the same time, it’s not confusing to us, we can follow what is going on.

While that in itself would be worth noting, it is simply dazzling and clever technique. Not something to be sneezed at, of course, but Mitchell manages to take it much further. The language used to describe the specimens is both a commentary on and reflection of Jacob’s inner emotions and reactions to that conversation. So, as Anna’s father speaks of Jacob’s merits and demerits, Jacob looks at a baby alligator which has a “demon’s delighted grin”. As he speaks of Jacob being only a clerk, Jacob looks at a tortoise that “appears to be weeping”. And when he speaks of the need for wealth, Jacob looks at the lamprey’s sharp teeth. Mitchell doesn’t have to tell us that Jacob was upset by his conversation with Anna’s father or what Jacob thinks of the man: he shows it to us in a much more subtle way. And that’s what raises it from dazzling technique to writerly genius.

And just look at the way the lines are laid out. As Sandybanks notes in her review, this is writing that straddles the line between prose and poetry. She's already pointed to the haiku-like snippets that pepper the narrative. Here's another description of Japan that's as much prose poem as it is a paragraph in a novel. I'm going to lay it out in stanzas to show how blurred the line is betwen prose and poetry but it's written as a single paragraph:
Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight
Over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching
Entrails at the marketplace and escaping
Over cloistered gardens, spike topped walls and treble-bolted doors.

Gulls alight on whitewashed gables,
Creaking pagodas and dung-ripe stables;
Circle over towers and cavernous bells
And over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells,

Watched by mule-drivers, mules and wolf-snouted dogs,
Ignored by hunch-backed makers of clogs;
Gather speed up
The stoned-in Nakashima River and fly

Beneath the arches of its bridges,
Glimpsed from kitchen doors,
Watched by farmers
Walking high, stony ridges.

Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries' vats;
Over kites unthreading corpses of cats;
Over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns;
Over bath-house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns;

Fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs;
Their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs;
Woodcutters' sons sharpening axes;
Candle-makers rolling waxes;
Flint-eyed officials milking taxes;
Etiolated lacquerers; mottle-skinned dyers;
Imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars;
Weavers of mats; cutters of rushes;
Ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes;
Booksellers ruined by unsold books;
Ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers;
Filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks;
Sunless attic nooks
Where seamstresses prick calloused fingers;
Limping malingerers;
Swineherds; swindlers;
Lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses;
Heard-it-all creditors tightening nooses;
Prisoners haunted by happier lives
And ageing rakes by other men's wives;
Skeletal tutors goaded to fits;
Firemen-turned-looters when occasion permits;
Tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges;
Mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges;
Apothecaries grinding powders with mortars;
Palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters;
Silent nuns; nine-year-old whores;
The once-were-beautiful gnawed by sores;
Statues of Jizo anointed with posies;
Syphilitics sneezing through rotted-off noses;
Potters; barbers; hawkers of oil;
Tanners; cutlers; carters of night-soil;
Gate-keepers;
Bee-keepers;
Blacksmiths and drapers;
Torturers; wet-nurses;
Perjurers; cut-purses;
The newborn; the growing; the strong-willed and pliant;
The ailing; the dying; the weak and defiant;

Over the roof of a painter withdrawn
First from the world, then his family, and
Down into a masterpiece that has, in the end,
Withdrawn from its creator; and

Around again, where their flight began,
Over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum,
Where a puddle from last night's rain is evaporating;
A puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes

The blurred reflections of gulls
Wheeling through spokes of sunlight.
This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is
Itself.
On Mitchell's Themes

A running theme through the novel is power and its abuse, which fits in nicely with the current zeitgeist. It’s a familiar motif in his works: Cloud Atlas tackled it directly, while it was more obliquely handled in Black Swan Green. In fact, the book reads almost like a lost chapter from Cloud Atlas. He not only revisits the same themes, he uses a similar episodic narrative with shifting viewpoints. If you’ve read Cloud Atlas, some of those episodes will echo loudly indeed.

The Orientalist notion of karma/reincarnation comes in here as well. Here, each character is brought face-to-face with the key challenge of doing the right thing especially when that might mean losing your freedom, your life, or your dearest dream. At one point, a character asks, “Do believers in karma, Doctor, believe that one’s unintentional sins come back to haunt one not in one’s next life but within this one, within a single lifetime?”

The concept of the butterfly effect in human lives has been explored in many other fictions, but Mitchell couples it here with the concept of karma. Events cascade on other events: do the right thing now and a domino gets knocked-down to start another chain of events putting another person on the cusp of another moral dilemma. Each dilemma leads to another for another, enfolding us all in a larger, bigger event whose resolution is ultimately resolved by each of these little decisions made all unknowingly by different persons along the way. Wheels enmeshed within larger wheels and on ultimately to intertwine with events on the world stage. The personal is indeed ultimately the political for who knows where the ripples from our decisions land up.

There is a belief in Taoist thought that the ultimate responsibility for our actions is not simply in their immediate effects but in how they play out over time. It's less “for want of a nail” though and more “for want of a sense of compassion”. So utterly appropriate to our time: who would have thought, for example, that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would lead to the US sponsoring the mujahidin against whom the Soviets would lose a costly and expensive war thereby undermining the Soviet empire whose fall would see the triumphalist return of the neo-cons whose hubris would lead them into the same quagmire in Iraq and a guns and butter policy that would bring the US to its current heavily indebted state? Who's personal moral dilemmas led the world to this impasse? And what was our own role in the current state of affairs? Take the car out for a drive today, and your grandchild might be climate refugee tomorrow. Wheels within wheels indeed, and we all have blood on our hands.

What Others Thought

Times Online (“spectacularly accomplished and thrillingly suspenseful”), The Independent (“Mitchell flexes his prose virtuosity”), The Guardian (“All Mitchell's architectural wizardry and verbal intensity are at play—but now subordinated solely into the service of his subject matter.”), and The Telegraph (“a fast-verging-on-breathless narrative that makes full and delighted use of the ripping yarn tool kit”).
Profile Image for John.
282 reviews65 followers
April 27, 2012
Last month I was visiting the MFA in Boston. After an hour or two of wandering through rooms sporting giant, bombastic 19th century American paintings, I came upon a dim hall with small, colorful prints hanging from the wall, like this one:

Sugatami Bridge, Omokage Bridge, by Utagawa Hiroshige

This was my first taste of Utagawa Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, and I was immediately transfixed.

Although the Edo referred to in the Hiroshige prints is a place (a city later to be renamed Tokyo), Edo also refers to the period of Japanese history starting from around the turn of the 17th century through the late 19th century. I know nothing of Japanese history, but like all good art, the Hiroshige prints evoke their place and time so vividly that by the time I left the hall I felt like an expert on the Tokugawa shogunate. When I got home I ordered several reproductions of my favorite pieces.

Coincidentally, during my trip to Boston, I was reading Cloud Atlas, and was becoming one of the millions to fall under its spell, and so when shortly thereafter I saw Mitchell’s new book in my local bookstore sporting a Hiroshige print on its cover (the very same one shown above, in fact, titled “Sugatami Bridge, Omokage Bridge”), and when I saw that it was set in Nagasaki during the Edo period at the turn of the 19th century, I immediately put my request in at the library and bided my time.

Edo-era Japan was notoriously insular, and the island of Dejima, the geographic locus of this novel, epitomizes that insularity: Dutch traders to Japan could not set foot in the Japanese nation, but this tiny artificial island in Nagasaki bay could house the Dutch garrison because it was not technically Japanese soil.

On this island just before the turn of the 19th century arrives Jacob de Zoet, a devout, somewhat naïve Dutch clerk with an I-cannot-tell-a-lie kind of honesty. Although tasked by the new Chief Resident to document the corruption that has afflicted the Dutch operation in the years preceding his arrival, Jacob soon gets caught up in a series of intrigues, including bending his ethics to assist the Chief Resident in his negotiations to increase the copper quota, a shady transaction with one of Nagasaki’s most powerful and shady players, and internecine squabbles among his own people culminating in a nasty double cross of sorts. And then he meets Orito, a Japanese woman with a burn mark covering half her face, falls in love, and we’re off to the races.

Jacob’s interest in Orito, which is the string that pulls us through the first third of the novel, feels a bit forced at first, almost as if the author is nudging the two together and saying “there there you two, go develop a love interest so I can get this novel off the ground.” Likewise, early on, the dialog among the Dutch feels similarly forced, with authorial interruptions separating the first clause of a character’s words from the rest, and a very stylized patois that at times strikes a false note. But as the story builds a head of steam and the characters evolve their individual quiddity this weakness fall away and, from around page 150 or so I was captive.

As the story progresses, following its various strands to a hermetic mountain monastery with a dark secret, to an uninvited British frigate that shows up on Nagasaki Harbor one day, to the halls of the local magistrate and back to grungy old Dejima, we are treated to dozens of colorful stories told by various members of the novel’s large ensemble cast. As I mentioned in one of my status update, these self-enclosed tales, in addition to serving as extended characterization (and treating us to instances of Mitchell’s virtuosity for clever argot), are little way stations where we get a breather from the snowballing tension of the plot and can revel in pure storytelling for the space of a page or two.

In Cloud Atlas, the disparate narratives seemed to be driving home a point about human greed leading to a dehumanized, destructive society, and this theme creeps up here as well. Here’s a passage from later in the book where a slave on Dejima talks about the trade his masters engage in:

“Their talk turns to owning, or to profit, or loss, or buying, or selling, or stealing, or hiring, or renting, or swindling. For white men, to live is to own, or to try to own more, or to die trying to own more. Their appetites are astonishing!”

It's hard not to feel the truth of this by the end of this story.

This is a novel that combines the very best of literary virtuosity with the historical verisimilitude of first-rate period drama with the slow and skillful build up and rapid release of tension that I associate with the best thrillers. It was a real pleasure to spend a week with it.
Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
474 reviews574 followers
May 13, 2018
I almost gave up on this one. If I hadn't read and loved all of David Mitchell's other novels, I think I'd have abandoned ship after the first hundred pages. But I'm glad I stuck with it, even if I do have some reservations about its sprawling story.

The year is 1799. Jacob de Zoet, an eager and resourceful young clerk, arrives in Dejima, a tiny trading outpost in the bay of Nagasaki. Back in the Netherlands he became engaged to the beautiful Anna, and intends to earn his fortune with the Dutch East India Company before returning home to marry her. But he finds Dejima a difficult place where two vastly different cultures collide. His position involves cleaning up a system rife with corruption and his best efforts are met with no little resistance. Then one day the beguiling Orito Aibagawa, a Dutch-trained midwife, catches his eye, and life will never be the same again.

The story is split into five sections and to be honest it doesn't really get going until the second part (p199!). We are introduced to a vast array of characters in the opening pages and I found it difficult to keep track of them all. But once the luckless Orito's fortunes take a turn for the worst, the plot kicks into action. The final chapters are riveting, as the tension between the Dutch and the British comes to a head and we discover a heartsick Jacob's fate.

I found The Thousand Autumns... quite a challenge overall, more than Mitchell's other work. It requires patience but it is a rewarding read. The plot is dense with historical detail and deep characterization, and provides a fascinating recreation of a period I knew nothing about. Maybe I could have done without some passages - I didn't really need to know the backstories of various labourers and sailors. But Mitchell's literary talents are still a wonder to behold - this is another ambitious, intricate story, told with signature elegance and flair.
Profile Image for Neale .
284 reviews124 followers
July 20, 2022
The novel opens with a magistrate’s concubine in the throes of a difficult childbirth. The baby has no pulse and is in a transverse breech position. If not delivered soon the mother will die. Dr Maeno feels helpless, not allowed to breach the muslin screen surrounding the bed. The muslin screen maybe a metaphor for Japan itself. He should not even be there, Dr Uragami was in charge of such an important birth, but not wanting to lose face and fearing the worst, he disappeared as soon as complications arose. Shame and dishonour await those who fail, an honourable death preferable to losing face. So perhaps Dr Uragami represents Japanese culture itself.

Miraculously the baby lives, due to the skill of the midwife. And because of the baby’s importance, Orito is rewarded with being allowed to study western medicine under the Dutch Doctor Marinus (yes, Marinus from The Bone Clocks).

1799 and Amsterdam is on its knees. Enemies on all sides just waiting for the kill. With an empty treasury the Dutch will surely lose Batavia if they do not receive copper from Japan. Copper to mint coins. Coins to pay its native armies. The copper must come through Dejima.

Dejima is an artificially created island that separates Japan from the outside world. The Japanese fearing western culture, religion, and technology, use this island as a shield and trading post. Japan has no navy; its defence, like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, is to hide itself away from the western world, banning all outside influence from its shores. It's subjects are forbidden from leaving the island. Their language and culture a mystery to outsiders.

The Dutch use Dejima as a trading waypoint and are the only European power with access to Japan.

Jacob De Zoet arrives on Dejima with the job of looking after the books, the ledgers of the warehouses. Charged with cleaning up the neglect and corruption that is rife on the artificial island, he hopes to make his fortune and return to marry into an important family back home after five years. He never expects to fall head over heels in love with Orito, the Japanese midwife from the first chapter, who is allowed onto Dejima while studying medicine under Dr Marinus.

But their love is doomed from the start. Before the nascent affair can grow, Orito is stolen away to a secretive shrine in which the nuns are little more than sexual slaves for the monks (again readers of The Bone Clocks will view this part of the book in a completely different and elucidating light).

With this being his fifth book, Mitchell delves into historical fiction and the juxtaposition between the different cultures, Dutch, Japanese, and English, makes for such an interesting read in a world that seems to shrink smaller every day. The Dutch and Japanese names make reading a little cumbersome at first, but familiarity grows with the story.

For me this is Mitchell’s best prose. Just like Japan, the writing is poetic and beautifully descriptive. I noticed myself enjoying the novel simply for the writing at times, whereas with other Mitchell novels the interconnected storylines dominate your concentration.

Strangely I would recommend reading The Bone Clocks before reading this novel. Rereading this after having read The Bone Clocks was a far richer and more rewarding experience. It is surprising how much of a difference it makes. Dr Marinus is an integral character and knowing his backstory does enlighten the reader profoundly.

With this book Mitchell has packed his literary tricks away and given the reader a beautiful love story set in a liminal world that exists between the West and the East.

This was book five in the DavidMitchellathon with the wonderful Nat K. Please check out her review when she posts it.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
610 reviews751 followers
April 29, 2012
Is there anything David Mitchell can't do? Dazzling is the word for this. Fizzing with life, it appears at first to be a conventional historical novel, but then swoops into speculative fiction that is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro, with human babies being 'farmed' for nefarious reasons, then back to the historical world and a wonderfully exciting naval stand-off, where Our Hero is saved by his red hair. (You'll have to read it to find out). James Wood, a critic who I admire greatly, has to go far to find fault, but he does manage it. In his article:http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics...
he bemoans the lack of inner necessity: just because Mitchell can visit eighteenth century Japan is not enough of a reason to do so, a moral or metaphysical pressure has been sacrificed to sheer joyful storytelling, and asks where is the present, what does this tale tell of present sensibilities? But I don't agree: I see that question of the red hair as essential: small details can have huge repercussions that none of us could ever foresee. What we see as a failure might turn out to be all for the best in the long run, or not, depending entirely on the point of view. The world as interconnected, and yet unfathomable, any 'knowledge' as illusion, as any assumptions we make are scuppered by experience - a constant throughout the book is the question of trust, who can we trust, who do we 'know' well enough to dare to guess at their motivations and intentions? Everyone is on the make, all of them trying to sting before they are stung, and then, on top of all that, there is also the conflict between scientific, rational, empirical knowledge and mystical, occult, superstition; we may think that's a no-brainer, but then we're back to those coincidences and odd chance encounters that can alter the entire course of history, so where is our logical rationality then? Is that enough for you Mr Wood?
Profile Image for Nat K.
400 reviews142 followers
September 2, 2022
"Are we no more than the totality of our acts."

A green eyed, flamed haired clerk by the name of Jacob de Zoet, takes up a five year post at Dejima, Japan. This is a bustling port and trading post, a man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki Bay. It is also the only entryway to Japan, which is still very much part of the mysterious East. Its inhabitants are forbidden from leaving (even to travel with intent to return) on punishment of death. Jacob’s goal is to build up enough wealth, to make his fortune, in order to return home feeling he has earnt the hand of his beloved, Anna, in marriage.

Welcome to ”The Land of a Thousand Autumns.”

Part I. The year is 1799, and it’s into this strange new world that Jacob finds himself. The Dutch East Indies Company are currently the only Westerners permitted to trade here, primarily in copper, which is required to mint coins (to pay their navy), as well as mercury for medicinal purposes, amongst a myriad of other items.

Someone has been cooking the books. And more than a bit of pilfering has been going on in the warehouses and on the docks. It’s Jacob's role as bookkeeper to find out who, and to balance the ledgers. ”The cabal of smugglers” have to be unmasked. Throw into the mix the Hall of Sixty Mats where all work items and matters of importance on the island are discussed with the Japanese, and it’s a steep learning curve that Jacob finds himself on. Both sides have to learn to communicate with each other with the aid of interpreters (who are ranked according to importance), and the clash of cultures is very keenly seen here. Including quite a bit of one upmanship as the male egos on both sides throw verbal stoushes at each other.

”The books are an unholy mess…”

It doesn’t take long for Jacob to settle into the pulse of life in Dejima. The masculine posturing of life on a port, all the colourful characters drawn to that lifestyle, his dealings with the Japanese interpreters, learning about a new culture and language, befriending fellow Dutchman Dr Marinus, having a budding friendship with an interpreter of similar age, Okawa Uzaemon, who is also a fellow bibliophile. Life is busy and full, and Jacob starts to think that perhaps five years will pass more quickly than he first thought.

A chance meeting with the mysterious Aibagawa Orito turns Jacob’s world upside down. It is an instant meeting of minds and souls. We learn that Orito is the daughter of the well respected surgeon Dr. Aibagawa, and she shows a natural affinity for medicine. As a practising midwife, she brings her knowledge of ancient herbal wisdom (learnt from Otane, a mysterious herbalist and shapeshifter who lives in the woods), and blends it with more modern western practices. This melding of complementary practices result in the healthy delivery of a breech birth in the opening pages (which are not for the faint of heart!). Throughout the story, Orito displays a gentle grace and will of steel. She is probably my favourite character in the entire story, and a standout for me of all of Mitchell’s characters (which I’ve read to date). Her kindness and strength shine through.

Which is what attracts Jacob to her, as she is unlike anyone he has ever known. Jacob finds himself constantly thinking of Orito, and wishing time could stand still in their brief meetings. It’s subtle and beautiful.

”I wish, he thinks, spoken words could be captured and kept in a locket.”

Orito’s aspiration to increase her knowledge finds her studying with Dr. Marinus, who is an utterly fascinating and quirky character in his own right. He’s another “fly in” who is in Dejima due to his desire to learn about other cultures and peoples, as well as the natural habitat and botany that is so different to his homeland. He’s definitely there to feed his knowledge, rather than his coffers. The world is infinitely fascinating to him, and he’s one of the few characters that do not stand on ceremony, and treats all with equal deference.

”Science itself, gentlemen, is in the early stages of becoming sentient.”

Part II is set in Mount Shiranui Shrine. Despite the heavy and dark subject matter of this chapter, I appreciated the mysteriousness of the unfolding events. At the sisterhood of the women who were placed there. Without giving the story away, what occurs here is truly appalling, and makes you realise that cults of some form or another have always existed. It’s into the den of iniquity that Orito finds herself. Rumours abound in the surrounding villages about the shrine, and those with questions are silenced with ”The monks live their lives as monks and the nuns live their lives as nuns.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This section brings up all sorts of questions about morals, ethics and loyalty, as an undertaking is taken to rescue Orito from a life of servitude.

There’s a lot of blokey stuff going on in Part III with the arrival of Captain John Penhaligon on board his vessel the Phoebus.The goal being for the Brits to take over the trading monopoly previously held by the Dutch. The first time I read this section, I neither enjoyed nor appreciated it. But when I reviewed it, I saw it through different eyes. Not just the mechanics of seafaring and war, but the men and their stories. Each one having their own reasons for the mission to either succeed or fail. Again, morals and sentiment are there, if not at first glance.

"Nobody ever died for a flag, only for what a flag symbolises."

It is also in this section where justice is served and karma deals her hand. The duality of good versus evil, has a climactic ending. The wrongs from Part II can never be put right, but "...a black butterfly lands on the White stone, and unfolds its wings."

There is absolutely stunning and exquisite writing throughout. I highlighted so many shining sentences that made my heart sing. Or really had me thinking hard about their meaning, as they are so deep. Some examples are below:

* "Ink, from his cracked ink pot, indigo rivulets and dribbling deltas…Ink, thinks Jacob, you most fecund of liquids..."
* "The moon was full an’ bright as the sun."
* “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love.”
* "Plums are piled in a terracotta dish, blue-dusted indigo."
* " ’I don’t know.’ Jacob thinks of Anna’s face by a rainy window, ‘I do not know.’"
* " We were, to quote the proverb, ‘The one dog who barks at nothing answered by a thousand dogs barking at something….’ "
* "There is no birdsong, he notices, in winter’s cage."
* "He wishes the human mind were a scroll that could be rolled up…"
* "How gleefully…life shreds our well-crafted plans."
* "A black-headed bird watches from the core of the flame red tree."
* "..ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books…."
* "The autumn sun is an incandescent marigold." (how stunning is that…)
* "Starlings fly in nebulae: like a child in a fairy-tale, Jacob longs to join them. Or else, he daydreams, let my round eyes become nomadic ovals…West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls in its atlas of clouds."

(very clever Mr. Mitchell, popping a reference to Cloud Atlas in there…the Mitchellverse is more subtle in this book, but it’s there).


Then there are specific lines relating to an enigmatic moon-grey cat who visits Orito at the Shrine:

* " The cat looks at her and miaows, Fee me, for I am beautiful."
* "The cat tells Orito that she is a poor dumb creature"
* " The moon-grey cat licks its paws and speaks in her father’s voice. ‘I know you’re a messenger’, says the dreamer, ‘but what is your message?’ "
* "The moon-grey cat vanishes into the mist as if it never existed."

I could go on and on as there are so many more examples. This book contains a visual feast of words.

There is the Hour of the Rabbit. The Hour of the Horse. The Hour of the Dragon. Utterly different and utterly fascinating.

This is where I get to the "critical" part of my review. Or is that critique? Reading Thousand Autumns the "first'' time around was hard work. This challenged me on so many levels. It’s the first Mitchell book that I’ve struggled with. I always knew, even before reading it, that it would be my Achilles Heel. I simply did not appreciate the incredibleness of the story on first reading. Even the ending had me perplexed, and I felt that I had lost my ability as an empathetic reader to understand what it meant.

The busyness, noise, and constellation of characters at the beginning overwhelmed me. I found the story hard to focus on, as there is so much going on. My difficulty with the Dutch and Japanese names slowed down my reading. I kept losing track of who was who. I also found most of the characters to be boorish and coarse, vulgar even. It took me a long time to settle into a rhythm, to get to a comfort level, where I was purely reading for the joy of the story, without overthinking what I was reading.

"One may make most sense of all when one makes no sense at all."

I now - finally - appreciate that Mitchell was setting up the myriad of characters in the first chapters for their roles further into the story. Like anything in life, "timing is everything", and had I picked this up when I had less noise going on in my own head, I possibly would have dealt with this better.

A week after completing the book, I have again re-read so many chapters, as well as all of Part III, and my view of it has changed completely. This book is a masterpiece. As much as, if not more than Cloud Atlas. Mitchell is such an intelligent and though provoking Writer. He continues to surprise and confound me. The depth and breadth of the topics he tackles here are incredible. The subjugation of women, the class and caste system across all walks of life, colonisation, faith and religious beliefs, slavery, “brave new worlds”, the abuse of power, the power of love. All tied in together in a massive story of amazement. At over 500 pages, there is a lot here to digest. I cannot pretend it was easy, but it was definitely worth it.

And his humour! It’s something that doesn’t seem to be mentioned often in relation to his writing. There are so many moments here of subtle humour with misunderstandings between the interpreters and the Dutch, Jacob and Orito, the translations of words and phrases. It was a lovely balm to the otherwise more serious tone of the story.

I never thought I would say it, but I do see myself revisiting this one day. As part of a future David Mitchell Odyssey. Four full stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐ for all the challenges and rewards of this read.

The ending is melancholic and bittersweet. It is perfect, and as it should be.

"I could tell you a hundred things, thinks Jacob, and nothing at all."

Shout out to the wonderful and talented Mr. Neale-ski, who I buddy read this with. He was extremely patient as I read this at such a snail’s pace. We had many discussions - and disagreements - as I was unable to understand what the fuss was about. Until the penny finally dropped.

Please have a read of Neale’s fab review. He clearly and succinctly displays the complexity of the story, and his enjoyment of it shines through.:
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

"The night sky is an indecipherable manuscript."

This is certainly Mitchell’s love story to Japan. And what a beautiful one it is.
Profile Image for Scott.
288 reviews290 followers
October 6, 2016
Right in the testicles. That's where this book kicked my suspension of disbelief, landing a crunching, foetal-position-inducing blow that was all the more painful for being unexpected.

I'm a big fan of David Mitchell's work. I love Cloud Atlas and I've given it as a birthday gift to several friends. Ditto for Ghostwritten, a book I greatly respect for it's blend of narratives and voices, and genres. I enjoyed Numberninedream, and thought Black Swan Green was, well, OK. I dig Mitchell's ability to write in several, very different authorial voices, and his blending of lit-fic and Sci-Fi. I expected to love this book, and I was disappointed.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet begins well, and presents an interesting set of characters in a colorful setting. Young Dutch Clerk Jacob De Zoet arrives at a trading island off the coast of 1799 Japan, where he is to work as a clerk for the Dutch Easy India company. He meets the intriguing Japanese midwife Orito, gets caught up in the local politics of his fellow Dutch traders and sets the reader on a journey through a sometimes mystical feudal Japan and its relations with the West.

As with all of Mitchell's work, The Thousand Autumns is well written. The setting is interesting and convincing, and the narrative is fairly engaging, if not always pulse-racingly exciting. I liked some of the characters, particularly the supporting cast of Dutch traders. Sadly, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet did not float my Dutch East India Company Merchantman in the same way Mitchell's other books did.

I was enjoying, if not loving the story until the aforementioned testicular assault occurred. (If you are without said organs, please substitute another part of your anatomy which you particularly dislike being kicked). Essentially, something in the narrative happened that was so implausible to me, so ridiculous for the character involved, that it kicked me right out of the book and into WTF-ville.



My suspension of disbelief was broken and my engagement with the book withered. I had to force myself to read through to the last page.

Maybe it's unfair to rate a book down because one thing threw you or made you suspicious of the author (hell, making you aware of the author is often bad enough). It may seem a little capricious, but if there's anything that ruins a read for me it's stumbling across the sort of unlikely plot device that makes you want to phone the author and ask them whether they missed their morning coffee on the day they wrote that section of the story.

Across the numerous reviews of The Thousand Autumns I've read, no-one else has mentioned having this problem, and I’m curious, is this something anyone else has encountered? Is it something that has happened with other books you’ve read? This is the second occasion in recent years that a story has been ruined for me by an unlikely or implausible plot development- the other book was Peter F. Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction and I couldn’t bring myself to finish that one.

Anyway, maybe you won't be bothered by this plot twist. Maybe you'll love this book. Maybe you’ll be carried away to feudal Japan and De Zoet and Orito's story will make you gasp, sigh, and scowl in all the right places, free from savage blows to your inner reader's sensitive areas.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,218 reviews512 followers
January 19, 2011
I really enjoyed this book immensely, probably a 4.5 of 5. It's so close to a 5 and someday I may return and decide it is.

The story grabbed me from the start and I believe that has to have some connection to Mitchell's skills as a writer and story teller as well as the story itself as tales of the sea and exploration are usually of no interest to me. His picture of the cultures of the time, both Japanese and the transplanted Europeans, captured my interest from the first pages and always had a feeling of authenticity to it--though I have to say I know little to nothing about that area in that era.

While the myriad characters might have been confusing to start, I decided to allow them to flow through the story, and the stronger ones took up a stronger presence as I'd hoped they would. I only wish Orito had played a larger role, but as she said, her role was huge--to aid in ending the Shrine and its practices. I liked the doctor, felt I came to know Jacob through his actions and how he was reflected in others eyes and actions.

So many responses to this novel. One thing is certain. I will read more David Mitchell.
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews862 followers
August 5, 2011
I was happy to see Mitchell try his hand at historical fiction. While he’s always been considered an immensely skilled writer and a superb storyteller, it's his inventive structuring that seems to bring forth the highest praise. Read Cloud Atlas to see if you agree. With this most recent work, as he said in a post-publication interview, he was trying a more straightforward narrative form – one without gewgaws (I think that was the word he used, or maybe it was “jiggery-pokery”). I’m pleased to report that he succeeded beyond all expectations, even with the ropes of convention constraining him.

Jacob was an earnest young Dutchmen amongst the motley assemblage at a remote trading post on Dejima, an island near Nagasaki. The story began in 1799 at a time when Japan was a very closed society. In fact, the isolated post offered the only real exposure to the Western way of life. Unfortunately, honor was scarce on all sides of a typical Dutch East Indies Company transaction. Jacob, a junior clerk at the time, did meet some virtuous people, though. Foremost among them was a midwife named Orito Aibagawa who was studying medicine under Marinus, the highly skilled, highly evolved physician on the island. Orito was a promising student, empathetic, and attractive despite a bad burn mark on the side of her face. Young Jacob was smitten.

Romance wasn’t easy, though, for reasons the reader soon discovers. Jacob had other travails, too, when he refused to falsify one of the shipping documents. He was demoted and made to report to a conniving, downright scurvy rival. Then Orito was sent away. And it sure didn’t help matters when the language and culture were so different and there were so few people he could trust.

I’d rather not get too deep into the plot (though it’s a worthy one) and instead focus on the book’s other qualities. I’m convinced that David Mitchell is incapable of committing a bad sentence to paper. He’s also very good with character development as we see with Jacob, Orito, and various translators, magistrates, and seafarers. And that rare storytelling ability I mentioned, it takes the action well beyond the island. He leads us up a mountain to a nunnery harboring secrets and to treacherous parts of the Japanese shogunate.

I was already a big Mitchell fan so it was interesting to me to see the contrasts with his earlier works. One thing that was different was the immense amount of research involved in putting a book like this together. In fact, there is a section at the end where Mitchell appends a short essay on the topic of historical fiction. He said he’d tried earlier to apply the antiquated language of the times, making “extensive word lists to incorporate into [his] text—and ended up with Blackadder.” He also mentioned the danger in showing off his recently acquired scholarship at the expense of narrative flow. Even so, one criticism of the book was that he may have gone a little too far with his descriptive passages. Once the story gained momentum, though, that was no longer an issue.

I wanted to give this the full five stars, but in the end couldn’t quite do it. My problem was with Jacob. He seemed a tad too forthright, at times, with a lack of people smarts. We admire his integrity and hard work, but can’t always see his human aspect. Maybe it’s just that I’m so used to really liking (or at least understanding the frailties of) Mitchell’s main characters and had been hoping to do so again. Overall, though, this was a great reading experience. And my view of Mitchell himself is still as high as any cloud in the sky, mapped or otherwise.
Profile Image for Nandakishore Mridula.
1,238 reviews2,207 followers
May 28, 2015
The story of star-crossed lovers on two sides of a divide during a turbulent historical period is the staple of many an historical novel. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, at first glane, is just that: however, the author has entered uncharted waters by venturing into an area which is seldom explored in historical novels, by choosing Japan during her international isolation as the venue and making the clerk of the erstwhile Dutch East India company, the unlikely hero.

Jacob de Zoet has joined the Dutch East India Company as a clerk, due to reasons common to many young men of his generation: in the hope of making a quick fortune to marry the girl of his dreams. But all too soon he discovers that to proceed in his career, he has to sell his soul to the devil. He is that anomaly, an honest man in a European commercial enterprise in a corrupt era. Jacob refuses to do this, and falls afoul of his superiors, ruining his bright career chances: to compound his woes, he falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife with a burn disfiguring half her face. His already hopeless suit becomes even more impossible when Orito is sold into virtual slavery at the Mount Shiranui shrine to pay off her dead father's debts by her stepmother. Deliverance comes for Jacob and Orito, however, at the end, but not in any way envisaged by them.

Mitchell's novel is panoramic in sweep and flawless in execution. His technique is cinematic: sentences follow the principles of montage, so that each thought process of a character, each speech is interspersed with happenings in the surroundings (in fact, all the while I was reading this novel, I was running a movie in my mind: especially part two in the Shiranui shrine which was in Multicolour and Panavision and directed by Kurosawa). This, along with the fact that it is written entirely in the present tense, gives a sense of immediacy to the narrative. The characterisation is also terrific; especially the villain, Enomoto, is worthy of Amrish Puri!

Then why the three stars? Well, IMO, what the novel provides in technique it misses in substance. For all its page-turning suspense and colourful background, I found the story to be rather lacking in a central focus. I was confused at the end on what the author was trying to say through this novel. After rising to a satisfying plateau through parts one and two, part three was a partial let-down: and the resolution was totally unsatisfying. Let us just say that Mitchell raised my hopes only to dash them to the ground.

Maybe my high hopes at the beginning made my review a trifle harsh. But don't be put off, it's a good read anyway.
Profile Image for fourtriplezed .
443 reviews90 followers
June 26, 2020
I found after finishing this terrific fiction I was looking to read about the events that this book was based on. I came away impressed that David Mitchell could turn an historical event as was a small trading depot on a man made island called Dejima in the middle of Nagasaki harbour in the late 1700’s into such an epic but subtle fiction. No Hollywood ending! Fantastic.

David Mitchell is a great story teller and a great writer. I have read his oeuvre in order and have yet to not be anything but enthralled. A damn fine book.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews614 followers
October 25, 2010
Giving this book three stars doesn't adequately represent its melange of 1-star and 5-star elements. The prose here walks a line between vivid and so purple that it's gushing persimmon juice over your lips... no, that's not quite a direct quote. The romance between two of the characters hangs on just a few meetings, one of which is an awful scene where they teach each other the words for "dew" in their respective languages. The entire middle section of the book rests on a fantastical plot element--an evil religious sect that kidnaps one of the main characters--that is never explained, in the sense that I expected some sort of author's note at the end. Why on earth does the author do so much research and make the Dutch-Japanese trading milieu so realistic, only to take this weird detour? I read a review that ascribed it to magical realism, but I didn't find it whimsical or particularly metaphorical, more crass or exploitative.

I found the voices linguistically muddled. Someone warned me that I would be driven up the wall by the lower-class Dutch characters' Cockney accents: true. But consider also that when the Japanese interpreters are speaking Dutch, they are depicted speaking pidgin English, but when Jacob de Zoet is shown speaking Japanese, his dialogue is perfectly normal although his mastery of Japanese is much less. Then for a while we have a section that's told by a slave called Weh, which is in the first person for no apparent reason (since the third-person sections are plenty omniscient when it comes to Jacob's and Ogawa's private thoughts). And that leads us back to the endless pages of anecdote-telling by the various salty men of this story, which were sometimes related in so heavy an accent that I was tempted to nod off.

This makes it sound as though I hated the book, but it had redeeming qualities. I found de Zoet's meandering path through life to make for interesting reading, and the parts of the book that aren't overwritten are well-written. The cross-cultural suspicions and friendships were more interesting to me than the attempt at romance, especially all the details of the ways the Japanese and Dutch bent, oh so slightly, to accommodate each other's culture. The atmosphere of the Dejima factory, in sounds, smells, and resentments, was palpable.

People who enjoyed these aspects of the story would probably enjoy the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, but since those books contain dragons and are thus tainted by association with swords-and-wands epics, I can't always persuade people to try them--your loss!
Profile Image for Edward.
414 reviews389 followers
June 21, 2019
Mitchell chose a perfect location for his novel. Dejima, a place largely forgotten by the world, is an apt distillation of the insularity and xenophobia of the “Cloistered Empire”, fearful of external influence and resistant to change (This attitude would later see an abrupt reversal, leading eventually to Japan’s imperial aspirations in the 20th Century, culminating in the atomic explosion over almost this exact location. I’m sure this is not a coincidence - the seeds of necessity which precipitate this later drive to modernity are planted here, in this story). The time and place are wonderfully evoked, as is the interplay between the two cultures.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is slow to start, only really opening up as the story of Orito Aibagawa develops, around half way through. But the second half of the novel is a wonderful experience, exploring ideas of love, honour and duty as well as the decay and death of the old world. Throughout, the focus remains on the personal, the cultural differences highlighting the universals of human experience. In both cultures we see the same hypocrisies beneath the professed values of duty and honour. These are often a façade, a tool which can be utilised by those in power. Human history is messy, and the striving for even simple pleasures is often interrupted, or rendered impossible by one’s relationship with power. The interactions between people are never to be taken at face value, and true motives are often hidden. In this novel, the fraught nature of human relationships is frequently contrasted against the simplicity of a game of Go:

If only, Shiroyama dreams, human beings were not masks behind masks. If only this world was a clean board of lines and intersections. If only time was a sequence of considered moves and not a chaos of slippages and blunders.


My main criticism of the novel is stylistic - I find such extensive use of dialogue to be quite draining. But this is a personal preference. Mitchell’s use of language is otherwise excellent, and the story is lush, enchanting and surprising.
Profile Image for Sam.
142 reviews304 followers
June 20, 2020
One of my favorite books - this was my third or fourth reading of Mitchell's wonderful work that is historical fiction, but also entirely transcendent of the genre.

Set in Nagasaki, Japan on the artificial island of Dejima, the plot revolves around the titular Jacob de Zoet, a clerk with the Dutch East India Company, and Orito, the slightly scarred midwife whose beauty and intelligence captivate Jacob (and other characters besides). But the secondary and peripheral characters are all deeply and carefully brought to life, as compelling in their own right as the two leads.

Though it sets up to where you think it will be a slowly unfolding, cross cultural love story with the backdrop of the Dutch trading post in Japan, Mitchell is far too inventive for that. Suddenly you're ensconced in horrifying cults and the subjugation of women and a skirmish with a British warship and the views of cowardice and heroism that unite and divide various members of the cast of characters.

What stands out for me is the importance of language in the novel: translation, from Japanese to Dutch and back again, is front and center, as is word choice between characters. The scene where Kobayashi subtly threatens Jacob via a translation lesson is astounding in its genius and so well crafted. And the importance and love of language the characters hold, Mitchell holds as well. I found myself truly enjoying his prose, his ear for how language sounds coming out of character's mouths and in narrative flow, and dog-earing pages all over the book with phrases, sentences, ideas I most appreciate.

I became misty eyed at the end, as I always do, not because the ending is particularly sad, but because it is both deeply satisfying, and also because while the novel is pretty much perfect from my perspective, I grew to love everything about the read so much, I would always want more.
Profile Image for Erik.
338 reviews258 followers
March 16, 2017
Despite my great love for Cloud Atlas (also by Mitchell), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did not quite do it for me. I might even go so far as to say that, at times, it felt like The Thousand Visits to the DMV, if the DMV were staffed by highly literate history professors who accompanied every eye-exam and form signing with an exhaustive digression into various arcane automemorabilia that may or may not be quite interesting, excepting the fact that it's the DMV, a successful attendance of which can best be summarized as "wham bam thank you ma'am."

While a successful book reading would certainly not be characterized similarly, the general feeling of thwarted expectations is the same: I approached this book seeking to achieve something - some resonance with the story and its characters - and went away disappointed. What it ultimately came down is that I didn't understand the... hm what to call it? The drive, the gist, the point, the moral? No, not moral. Consistency, perhaps? Yes that's a good word for it.

Thousand Autumns is not consistent - it is a cheesecake filled with too many rich, wonderful, exotic ingredients, and then improperly baked. It's got anardana, wattleseed, sumac, mace (nutmeg shells), juniper, mahlab, kaffir lime, etc, etc. While any given bite may be bursting with flavor, the overall taste lacks consistency. To some, such a gleeful mixture of ingredients may signify great and wondrous Literature, but, to me, signifies someone who attempted to write great and wondrous Literature and failed and therefore should have made sure they understood how to bake a simple cheesecake - that is, write a good story - before adding in the complexifying spices.

In a good story, a Dutch clerk named Jacob de Zoet stationed in the Japanese port of Nagasaki would not have fallen in love with a woman for no reason whatsoever. A good story-teller wouldn't have done this because he would have known that to build a character's motivations upon a love that happens magically and without due process would cause the entire story to ring with a false note. A good story-teller would also probably not randomly switch narrative points of view - it goes from Jacob de Zoet to a Japanese NINJA (not seriously but... yeah, actually, pretty much) to an English captain and to a few others and back, without bothering to establish any sort of tempo in the rise and fall of suspense and intrigue.

If David Mitchell had been interested in telling a good story, he would not have done this. But he was more interested in writing Literature. Which is fine, okay. Not every book needs to be a "good read" to be a, um, good read. But Thousand Autumns is not good Literature, either. Such tomes have a haunted quality, infused with the whispered dreams and nightmares of fictitious characters. Their ideas sneak in and possess us like ghosts, bubbling to the surface of our thoughts at odd times, when writing a love letter or closing our eyes for a quick brain break or tucking in our children or watering our garden or taking a dump. I really really wanted this book to have such a quality, which is why I gave myself three weeks between finishing it and writing this review. I gave it time for the ideas to bubble up to the surface. However, no such thoughts ever arose, and so I had to conclude: this book had no haunting quality and it is not Literature. It is mediocre.

So to return to what this book lacked: vision. It lacked heart. It was written to be clever and exhaustively researched, first and foremost, and somewhere along the way, in David Mitchell's editing kitchen, the damn fool forgot to add the heart of the book, he forgot to add the cheese to the cheesecake.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,665 followers
July 24, 2010
There is an art to consuming a cup of coffee, particularly if it is the first of the day, when your sleep-fuzzed brain and sluggish muscles yearn for the rush of caffeine. Drink it too quickly, you will burn your tongue and throat and negate the pleasure of its rich warmth curling thickly through your blood. Drink it too slowly and it will cool to a flaccid, bitter memory of what coffee could be.

Reading David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is like consuming that first, vital coffee of the day (I dedicate my very terrible simile to the Dutch, who created the modern stock market, based on the coffee trade in the century before the setting of this novel). If you rush headlong into the adventure, looking for the jolt of plot twists and intrigue, you will miss the nuances of tone and color that ripple through Mitchell's narrative as the points of view and settings change. If you go too slowly, you will lose the heat of the mystery and its complicated cast of characters. But by reading carefully and allowing Mitchell's pacing to steady the hand that is trembling for its narrative fix, you will emerge deeply satisfied.

If you have read any professional reviews of this book, you have been pounded over the head by the reminder that Mitchell has written a straight-on historical fiction. As if it wasn't evident in Mitchell's previous works that he is a master of historical details of language, tone, setting and weaving fact through his fantasy. In this instance, he lands us in Nagasaki Harbor alongside Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch clerk seeking his fortune as a member of the Dutch East Indies Company. As the 18th century comes to an end, Japan is still a nation of samurai and daimyo, determined to remain closed to foreigners. The Dutch outpost of Dejima, an artificial island in the port of Nagasaki, is the one remaining Western foothold in this land of mist and shadows.

That is the initial setting of the story. Where Mitchell takes you I won't reveal- you've got to invest the time and energy in your own exploration. But read as carefully as the author has written. There is exquisite language that is a luxury to read and there are detours that frustrate until you realize you are happily lost and willing to stay the course because you trust the roads will all meet up again.

There is a secret delight at the start of a certain chapter in the final pages of the books that will have you weak with wonder at the magic of words.

I may return to give this a final, fifth star. I considered early in the novel that I was continuing on only because it was David Mitchell- there is some clunkiness that made me drag my heels and even set it aside for a couple of days. But as I continued to read, I realized I had to push past my tendency to devour instead of savour. In the end, it was good to the last drop.
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