Chance Lee's Reviews > The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
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Jacob de Zoet wants things to be fair. He is brought to Dejima, a trading port near the Nagasaki, in 1799 to help root out corruption in a Dutch trading company. But the corruption is broader than expected, there is a large language barrier to contend with, and there's a baby-eating cult in the mountains.

Whoa, that almost seems two different books!

And it is. Three different stories, actually. And I gradually lost interest in each successive one.

*some spoilers follow, but I've hidden the major ones*

The Plot of Jacob de Zoet:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an almost-500-page novel divided into five parts. However, the last two parts comprise only 20 or so pages, so it's a three part book with two short epilogues.

In the first part, Jacob de Zoet is brought to Dejima. He has to contend with a jealous clerk, a corrupt manager, and a smartass doctor, Dr. Marinus. Through Marinus, Jacob meets Orito Aibagawa, a midwife-turned-medical student studying under the doctor. Jacob likes her, but through forces beyond his control, plus one mistake on his part, Orito is swept away!

That brings us to part two. Jacob barely factors in here as an interpreter named Ogawa, who assisted Jacob in part one, attempts to rescue Orito from her fate. The book is told in a 3rd-person perspective, with each chapter centering on a different POV character. Orito is the POV character for the first 8 pages. Jacob is the POV character for the next 170 pages and then... he's a supporting character in the story. We know Orito, and her chapters are her situation are interesting, but we never really get to know Ogawa the Interpreter. He has one goal: save Orito! He doesn't realize that she is resourceful enough to not need saving.

In part three, (view spoiler) the British decide to take over Dejima. Where in the bloody hell did they come from? Now we have POV chapters from a character we haven't even heard of until page 327. Captain Penhaligon. He isn't interesting. He has two goals: take over Dejima, don't fall over because of gout. He is the enemy, a boring one, and spending so much time with him as the POV is uninteresting. We also get chapters from random characters, like Japanese officials. It all feels like David Mitchell was telling a story that got out of control, and he couldn't find a way to tell it from the perspective of characters he already had, so he just threw new ones in.

The whole plot to take over Dejima (view spoiler) and the British (view spoiler). What was the point of all that?!

The Historical Fiction of Jacob de Zoet:

David Mitchell loves Japanese culture. I loved Japanese pop culture as a teenager, mostly through anime, so this historical look at turn-of-the-19th-century Japan is fascinating -- the class structure, the economy, the gender norms. Orito is a good character as a woman outside the norm. She isn't a wife, but she isn't a concubine either. She's a rare educated woman in Japan at this point in history. She believes in science, not superstition. Her internal conflict in Part Two is probably my favorite part of the book.

I liked the scenes of her interacting, like when Marinus has Jacob help her translated a medical text he knows will embarrass Jacob, purely for the mention of the word "vagina" a word Jacob has never heard spoken aloud.

"Slavery may be an injustice to some. But no one can deny that all empires are founded upon the institution."

David Mitchell always has a strong anti-corporate greed streak, that is apparent even in 1799. "Never credit a company gent who says, 'We've yer interests at heart,'" one man says. The Dutch trading company is shifty and corrupt and will always put its profits about its people. The same man tells Jacob, "loyalty looks simple, but it ain't." However, the way the plot goes, Jacob's loyalty is never truly tested. Later in the book, it becomes about his loyalty to his country, not the company, which is a different matter. Even then, Jacob takes a simply view of loyalty even when others try to convince him otherwise. Marinus tells Jacob that he may die for his flag, but his flag would never die for him. But they don't explore this further.

The book also touches on Christianity in Japan, but again, doesn't get too deep into this to provide me with an understanding of the dynamic of the time. There is one good quote, though: "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love."

The Storytelling Style of Jacob de Zoet/David Mitchell:

This is the fourth David Mitchell book I have read, and my least favorite. The others I have read are Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and Black Swan Green. Both Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks are the type of "new novel" which are really just various novellas stitched together. That is fine. I like those. They work because they constantly introduce new characters and help us get to know them.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is also stitched together, but it isn't a time-spanning epic the way Cloud Atlas is. By tossing aside and forgetting characters for dozens of pages at a time, it just feels sloppy and careless. The end of the book seems to think, "Oh right! Jacob de Zoet! His name is on the cover! What happened to him?" and serves as a coda for his life. We're told that Japan has different names for itself, like "the land of a thousand autumns," which is the only mention of the title. Is the book about him? Is it about Japan? I don't know.

Dr. Marinus shows up in The Bone Clocks as a major character. Here I learned that "Marinus" means "ocean," which fits in with David Mitchell's oft-used motif of the ocean. His chapter in The Bone Clocks was my least favorite, maybe because I didn't really know him and Mitchell expected me to enter The Bone Clocks with that knowledge. But he still isn't a very fleshed out or interesting character here. Although (view spoiler) but I need characters to back up my plots.

The Writing Style of David Mitchell:
Mitchell has a different writing style here, and I don't like it. There are many long sections of one sentence after one sentence description, creating a disjointed feel. Sometimes it works, like the weirdly erotic sounds of insects chirping, but most of the time it doesn't. The style looks like this:

The cover of the book has a beautiful painting on it.
The text of the cover is soothing beneath my fingertips.
The flipping of the pages blows a relaxing puff of air onto the tip of my nose.
Words fly by my eyelids. My eyelids become heavy.
So many pages flipping by. Flip. Flip. Flip.

And so on. There will be around two dozen sentences in these sections. Sometimes he'll intersperse thoughts between each line of description, and sometimes he'll have two characters talking like that, even though they're carrying on two independent conversations, so the only way to comprehend is to read the odd-numbered lines, then go back and read the even-numbered lines. No thanks. There is little reward for all that work.
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Reading Progress

August 11, 2015 – Started Reading
August 11, 2015 – Shelved
August 19, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-1 of 1 (1 new)

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Carolyn I just finished this, and loved it, so I'm now reading review and prowling around Goodreads to see other ideas about the book.

To me, Chance, the underlying theme that ties the pieces together is that good eventually wears down bad. Not that everybody lives happily ever after. It jibes with my own (quite limited) personal observations and certainly my own hopes.

As to style, I tend to analyze that a lot less than you do. I just enjoyed the flow of words and ideas.


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