The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

June 29, 2010
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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

Random House
June 29, 2010
Hardcover/496 pages
ISBN: 978-1400065455
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". . .an undertaking full of surprises and mystery . . ."

Intricately detailed trip to the 19th century when the Dutch East Indies Company controlled trade with Nagasaki.

Jacob de Zoet has just arrived on the island city of Dejima, the only foreign presence allowed near the sacred soil of Japan Dejima is connected to the mainland at Nagasaki by a bridge and trading is done through a group of interpreters who must carefully prune and present the more direct and unvarnished Dutch into a more respective tone and content for Japanese officials.

Jacob is a clerk and has been hired by the Dutch East Indies Company to go over the books and put them in order. All unofficial trading and theft must stop and the company turn a profit or heads will roll. The company spy, as the old inhabitants of Dejima call him, must tease out the details and do the job well so he can return to Zeeland and marry his fiancée, Anna.

Six years is a long time and Jacob, despite his love for Anna and his plans for the future, meets and becomes fascinated by a disfigured Japanese midwife, Miss Aibagawa. Oriko Aibagawa is the only female allowed to attend medical school as a favor for saving Magistrate Shiroyama’s son’s life during his birth. Between hiding a forbidden Christian book, a Psalter bequeathed by his uncle, and his fascination for Miss Aibagawa, Jacob takes the first steps on a dangerous road that will change his life.

To illuminate the history of the Dutch and their monopoly of trade with Japan in 1799 during a time when the Dutch were at war and their control of trade slipping through their grasp is a daunting task, one which David Mitchell seems most able to take on. His command of language of sublime and his attention to detail at times overwhelming, rendering The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a daunting task.

The narrative is brisk at times and furthers the story and at other times bogged down by the weight of minutiae. At times it is difficult to become emotionally invested in any of the characters. However, the historical content alone recommends this epic undertaking and makes the sometimes tedious journey worth the effort. Mitchell’s command of vocabulary is masterful and, although he tends to present the material with a modern tone and flavor, the descriptions are painstakingly drawn. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is often as inscrutable as the Japanese mind but an undertaking full of surprises and mystery that will be hard to forget.

Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell

 

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