Monday, August 2, 2010

The Thousand (Quite Vivid, But Not-Always-Interesting) Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Will Jacob de Zoet ever get the girl? To answer that, David Mitchell leads us through the day-to-day routine of a little-known 18th century Dutch trading post, a bizarre Japanese cult where women are "engifted" and their "gifts" confiscated, and a naval battle with huge geopolitical implications. Still, whether or not the nice guy won't finish last remains the central question in David Mitchell's fascinating new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Mitchell's story is, in a word, vivid. As The Millions pointed out, the novel has a cinematic feel. The sentences sparkle and the plot, told in the present tense, continuously veers off unexpectedly. It's not hard to follow (keep a list of characters, like this helpful fellow did, though; there are many), but sometimes it is hard to stay engaged.

Here's why: Mitchell constantly interrupts himself to provide detail. He stuffs bits of narration into dialogue mid-sentence (see below for an example) and describes in several one-line sentences in a row that read at times like poetry (see below for an example of this, too). These tricks in themselves aren't annoying, but you never quite get used to them, and they tend to distract from the flow of the story. And when you're telling a story about something as abstruse as Dutch-Japanese-British relations in 1799 at an obscure trading post, doing whatever you can to keep your reader with you seems to be the tack to take.

Basically what that all means is that Mitchell's snappy, crackling writing was both a blessing and a curse; both a hindrance to me totally investing myself in the story, but also the way by which I was able to find my way in and derive the enjoyment I did. That said, there are parts — a daring rescue attempt, the aforementioned naval battle — that speed along with thriller-like speed. But the scene-setting — and there's quite a bit to recreate the 18th-19th century world as vividly as Mitchell is able to — and jumps in story (Mitchell basically re-starts the story at the beginning of each of the three "acts" of the novel) cause a few lags in reading enjoyment, at least for me. 

But back to Mr. de Zoet, the mild-mannered, honest-to-a-fault young clerk who is employed by the Dutch East India Company. Charged with cleaning up the company's ledgers and clamping down on the blatant profiteering and corruption, Jacob has quite a challenge on his hands, especially given that his superiors are as corrupt as anyone. A chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife who has the rare opportunity to study under the Dutch Dr. Marinus on Dejima — the Dutch East India's trading post off the coast of Nagasaki — causes Jacob to all but forget his betrothed back home in the Netherlands. Jacob is fascinated with Miss Aibagawa, and is heartbroken when she is essentially kidnapped and forced to take up residence at a bizarre nunnery atop a mountain. Will the two ever be reunited? And if so, will she requite his love? If not, will Jacob ever get back home?

This was my first foray into Mitchell, and I am in awe. Thousand Autumns isn't my favorite book of the year by any stretch, but it's easy to see the genius behind it. The imagination and research that must've been required to tell this tale is simply stunning. There's always two ways to evaluate a book — the way that's objective as possible, putting yourself in the shoes of other readers, and the "it was/wasn't my cup 'o' tea" way. Objectively, it's a stunning book, but one I wish I would've liked more than I did. 

Example of in-dialogue narration:
"So," Vorstenbasch settles himself, "after three days ashore, how are you finding life on the company's farthest-flung outposts?"
"More salubrious"—Jacob's chair creaks—"than a posting on Halmahera, sir."

Example of several one-line sentences in a row that read like poetry:
Steam rises from a bowl of water; light is sliced on the bright razor.
On the floor, a toucan pecks beans from a pewter saucer.
Plums are piled in a terra-cotta dish, blue-dusted indigo.


  1. This is next on my TBR list. I enjoyed your review. It makes me think I'll have a slug getting through this novel, but with your background it sounds like it will be worth the read.

  2. TYVM for that character list. I'm 1/4 of the way through this one and I still have trouble separating my van Cleefs from my Vorstenboschs and keeping my Owagawas straight.

  3. I have cloud Atlas which will be my first foray into David Mitchells writing but for some reason The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet doesnt appeal. I think because no one has said they loved it but rather it was very clever and they liked it.

  4. I've been very curious about this book, but though it does sound great in some ways, I can tell it's not for me! Great review though.

    And congrats on the BBAW long list!

  5. @Kathy - Parts can be a big of a slug, yeah - but, then again, parts read like Nelson DeMille. It's definitely worth a read!

    @Joel - Wish I could take credit for the list - I had to add a line in my post to make it clearer that it wasn't mine. Yeah, the Ogawa's especially were tough to keep straight - all the Japanese characters are referred alternatingly by both their names, it seemed!

    @Jessica - I haven't yet read Cloud Atlas either, but have it on my shelf - wanted to start with this one before reading Mitchell's most well-known novel. Yeah, I don't blame you for it not sounding appeal - I think it may have a rather narrow audience; Mitchell fans, and fans of very detailed historical novels.

    @Jenny - Thanks for the congrats. And same comment to you as to Jessica - it's a pretty reader niche-specific novel...

  6. I'm planning to read this one soon as part of my Booker longlist reading. I haven't read any Mitchell yet, but from what I've heard this one is a departure for him, so I'm thrilled to not only read this one but explore his backlist too. Thanks for the review!

  7. Good review, Greg. It's always hard to know what to say about a book that is brilliantly written, but didn't engage you as a reader. Then again, what a relief when I find a book you can unequivocally rave about! BTW I drank the kool-aid in a big way with your man-crush David Foster Wallace. Thanks to my new Nook, Infinite Jest and This is Water belong to me! (Now I just have to read them....)

  8. Great, honest, review. This is one I'm sure I'll dip into since I haven't tried any of Mitchell's other work, and ther premise is interesting enough, though I can see how it might drag in spots given your descriptions.

  9. I love how you titled this post. The book sounds heavy - which means winter read to me. :) I'm definitely adding it to the wish list.

  10. @nomadreader - This was my first Mitchell, but after reading about his other novels, I'm not sure there's such thing as a departure for him, because he doesn't really have a baseline to depart from. Each of his novels is very different from the one before and the one before that. But I'm excited to check out his backlist too - he's clearly a prodigiously talented writer.

    @bibliophiliac - Yeah, you never just want to say "this book sucked. Why? Um, because I didn't like it." And, oh man, I'm so jealous of you right now - on the precipice of something as wonderfully great (though challenging) as Infinite Jest. And This Is Water is something I read frequently to stay grounded. I wish you way more than luck!

    @Andi - If you like detailed historical novels, then this is definitely your thing. And Mitchell really is a wunderkind - so the writing itself is often enough to sustain you.

    @Trisha - Good call! It is more of a winter novel, because yes, it is a bit heavy/dense. Maybe the summer-state-of-mind was part of the reason I couldn't drop myself into this book as fully as I would've liked.

  11. I loved this book, but then again I've been a Mitchell fan for years. His Black Swan Green is outstanding. Thousand Autumns is a bit dense, but still worth every minute of reading time. He is an excellent writer, and that is what makes this book work. Thanks for your review; if you get a chance you might want to pop round to see mine.

  12. Mmmm. Well. One of our book club members has recommended this, although she hasn't read it yet. But I'm not sure anyone other than the two of us would be willing to wade through it. I will definitely be picking it up--I'm willing to skim overly descriptive passages if need be!

  13. Really good points about the book, I think that grabs a lot of what I struggled with. The first parts, while beautifully written, just dragged and dragged. I want to try Mitchell again, but this book just wasn't for me.