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Monday, 10 October 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - a very personal review

Many hail him as a genius.  Time magazine (2007) named him as one of the most influential novelists in the world.  Shortlisted twice for the Man Booker prize and with five published novels David Mitchell is one of the best-known names in contemporary literary fiction.  And before I begin I'll confess right away to being a signed-up fan.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is Mitchell’s latest novel set in 19th century Japan (early 1800’s).  Mitchell is known for multiple POV's and changing narratives and time periods (often linked) within his novels.  Although there are several POV's within ‘Thousand Autumns’ the setting remains constant throughout the story.

The official website (click here) summarises the story:
Set in atmospheric coastal Japan, this epic story centers on an earnest young clerk, Jacob de Zoet, who arrives in the summer of 1799 to make his fortune and return to Holland to wed his fiancée. But Jacob's plans are shaken when he meets the daughter of a Samurai.

Some reviews describe the novel as a love story, but I feel that is an oversimplification of Mitchell’s writing and his intentions.  As in all of his novels he writes about experiences and what it is to be human.  The content is far too complex to be squashed into a concept or genre.

I came to this novel after reading Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green (in that order) and was immediately sucked into the story of midwife Orito Aibagawa in Chapter 1.  However, I struggled with the immediately following chapters which overran with characters and concepts that were quite alien to me – few of us have an in-depth knowledge of feudal Japan and Dutch trading.  Truthfully, I almost gave up before page 100, but I didn’t and was ultimately rewarded.  I had faith that all would soon fall into place and, as always with Mitchell’s writing, it did

Mitchell truly transports the reader to another time and place, immersing you in a world, which by the end of the novel you cannot bear to part from.  He lived and taught in Japan for over eight years before moving to Ireland with his family.  Mitchell’s passion and love for the country clearly shines out in this novel.

Jacob de Zoet is a rare creature: a man of honour and integrity.  He really does live by his principles and sticks to them even when surrounded by corruption and treachery, despite facing ruination and death.  This is a subtle man who through his actions develops the respect and loyalty of all around him.  A man we all could follow – he embodies the qualities that we yearn for in our politic leaders but sadly know they exist only in fiction.

The narrative also follows Orito, the disfigured midwife, and Uzaemon a Japanese translator for the Dutch traders.  Orito is an intelligent, determined woman trapped in a patriarchal society and Uzaemon another high-principled man who seeks redemption by saving Orito from the convent where she’s imprisoned.  Orito and Uzaemon’s tale is reminiscent of a medieval romance where the valiant knight risks all for his lady’s honour.

The quality of the writing carries you through the interwoven narratives like a gentle whispering wind.  At times the prose is reminiscent of Japanese poetry, subtle and delicate like multiple Haikus.  I loved this element of the book and it's this aspect that will linger long in my memory.  The conclusion is not a traditional happy ending, but I found it incredibly uplifting and quite beautiful.  My eyes were blurring as I read the final pages and yet the emotions triggered are not easy to catalogue.  Simply, I did not want to leave Jacob and his world.  Rather how Jacob feels when he finally has to leave Nagasaki and return to Europe.

If you haven’t discovered David Mitchell then I’d recommend you read this novel, but start with another of his books first.  ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ has clearly evolved from his other fiction and heaven knows how he will top it, yet I’d recommend a new reader should first start their Mitchell journey with Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas.

I have yet to read Number9Dream, a pleasure I’m saving as then I will have read all of David Mitchell’s novels and will be left waiting on his sixth book to come out.

Keep reading …

David Mitchell’s novels to date:
Ghostwritten, 1999
Number9Dream, 2001
Cloud Atlas, 2004
Black Swan Green, 2006
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, 2010

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