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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoeb by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoeb is Mitchell's latest offering-- a historical novel set in Japan.  The novel opens in 1699, a time when Japan was isolated from the West with the exception of a small Dutch trading outpost.

The first scene describes a difficult birth attended by Orito Aibagawa, a young Japanese midwife.  The endangered mother is the favorite concubine of the Japanese magistrate, and the outcome of this birth will influence the shape of events to come.

The story then abandons this scene, and the next chapter introduces Jacob, a young clerk who hopes to earn enough money during his assignment to marry the young woman he left behind.  Jacob is to examine the outpost's books and determine all who are responsible for the corruption that has drastically reduced the profits of the Dutch East India Company.  As the culture of corruption is widespread, Jacob knows he is not going to be a popular figure.

Aside from fictional narrative, the novel gives an interesting look at two societies that differ drastically--the power struggles, the social and diplomatic differences, the necessity of translators, the contrast between the feudal society in Japan and the Dutch contingent, deviousness and deceit.

Rich in detail, the novel nevertheless takes a while to pick up momentum.  There is a threat of malevolence that occurs early in the book, and the first portion had me worrying about Jacob, then comes a burst of several intertwined circumstances and events begin moving at a faster pace. 

While I found one subplot a little over the top, the writing kept me involved enough to put my doubts aside.  There are a lot of characters, but I didn't have much difficulty absorbing them even with the Japanese names.  I simply sank into the novel and enjoyed the experience.

Maybe a 4/5.

Fiction.  Historical fiction.  2010.  479 pages.


  1. Sounds interesting! I will have to keep it in mind. Read some bad books for a while... I am starting to sound like a broken record on here. lol Just kidding!

  2. Like you, I found the description of the societies and contradiction very interesting. The novel lost me somewhere in the middle but quickly picked up again.

    Here are my thoughts on it:

  3. Kailana - I'm always adding books that sound interesting to my list, but don't always get around to reading them!

    Man of la Books - I liked it, but I did like Black Swan Green better! I'll check out your review.

  4. I had heard so much about this book--all good things when it first came out I had to have it, but it still sits unread on my pile. I am looking forward to reading it, though and am glad to hear you liked it as well. I'm not exactly sure what's holding me back from reading it...

  5. Danielle - I have books on the shelves like that. I want to read them, but for some reason, it just isn't the right time or I'm not in the right mood.

    I still haven't read Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, but I will some day.

  6. Oh this does sound good. I don't think I'd read many reviews for it so I didn't even realize what it was about. I love reading good historical fiction and this sounds like it's got tons to offer.

  7. I've heard a lot about this book, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I've been a little reluctant to pick it up, perhaps because of the length and slowness. I did really like Cloud Atlas, though, so I should give his other work a try.

  8. Iliana - It was an interesting look into the Edo era and the "closed country" period that forbid Japanese from leaving Japan as well as restricting foreigners. The Dutch were segregated on the small artifical island of Dejima (so they were not really on Japanese soil).

    Dorothy - I still haven't read Cloud Atlas, but I really liked Black Swan Green.

  9. I have has this on my radar for awhile but haven't been motivated. It is good to know that the pace does pick up

  10. bookmagic - The nice thing about using the library, is that if the book doesn't work for you, it is easy to put it aside. I never actually considered not finishing this one, but there were some slow passages.

  11. I loved this book! The first part was slow, but after that, I found in fascinating. It's interesting that even in this book which is one narrative, Mitchell uses different styles as he does in Cloud Atlas.

  12. Kay - Mitchell has a gift, doesn't he? I really must read Cloud Atlas!