Saturday 3 March 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell - Book Review

Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Sceptre
Publication Date: 2011 (2010)
Pages: 546
Format: Paperback
Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction
Source: Birthday Gift

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.
(Goodreads Synopsis)

This is a book I came to with little prior knowledge other than the fact it had won high praise from many critics and reviewers. I was, therefore, expecting something amazing and, for the most part, Mitchell did deliver.

This is an intricate tale with a huge cast of characters. Many of these were not fully fleshed out, but those that were really came to life on the page. Jacob himself was a hero who inspired the reader's sympathies from the start and I enjoyed following his journey as he tries to make sense of the new world he finds himself in.

The book started a little slowly, but then really picked up and I was enthralled through the middle section. The main reason this got four stars and not five, is that fact that I did find my interest wavering a bit towards the end when the stories of Jacob and Orito were cast aside to focus on the arriving English frigate. I did find myself skimming a little through some of those scenes before the main thrust of the story returned.

Mitchell's prose is beautiful and his characters' thoughts have a sense of disjointed reality that adds to the overall dream-like effect. The historical detail supplied also shows the amount of research time that went into this book.

This is one for fans of literary/historical fiction and those with an interest in Japanese history.