REVIEW: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Dear David Mitchell,
Your literary novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, caught my attention because of its setting, the environs of Nagasaki in 1799-1800. I heard of the book through great word-of-mouth from people whose opinions I generally trust so I was excited to read it.
The novel begins as Jacob De Zoet, a Dutch clerk, arrives in Dejima, a tiny man-made island/trading post in Nagasaki’s harbor that foreigners to Japan aren’t allowed to venture out of. Jacob gets there after having fallen in love with Anna, a young woman from a wealthier family than his own. When he asked Anna’s father for her hand, the man suggested that Jacob join the Dutch East Indies Shipping Company to make his fortune. If in five years he has succeeded, he will be granted permission marry Anna.
Jacob is assigned by his superior, Vorstenbosch, the new chief-elect of Dejima, to help root out corruption. Jacob’s task is nigh impossible since Dejima is rife with graft and bribery. Nearly every one of his fellow Dejima residents (all male except for a Japanese mistress or two) resents him for trying and he suffers for it.
To complicate Jacob’s life further, he falls in instalove with Agawa Orito, a Japanese midwife permitted to study under Dejima’s Dutch doctor. Jacob quickly desires to make Orito his mistress. Anna told Jacob she could overlook peccadillos during Jacob’s five-year absence (men are men, after all, seems to be her attitude) as long as his heart stays hers. But Jacob’s heart quickly transfers its ownership to Orito.
It’s unlikely that Orito will agree to become Jacob’s mistress since it would lower her standing in Japanese society, and due to Jacob’s confinement in Dejima he can only communicate his attraction to her in clumsy ways, so for a long time he only loves her from afar.
I found the first third of this book incredibly frustrating. Jacob is naïve and clueless to an irksome degree. He’s also a prig. His ineptitude in social interactions doesn’t help matters. His life is one humiliating situation after another (this is undoubtedly supposed to be funny, but I never enjoy that kind of humor). The tiny setting of Dejima, which contains only two or three streets, made for a claustrophobic reading experience, though that was part of the point. So I was thoroughly bored by the first 37% of the book.
Then comes a big shift. At first I breathed a sigh of relief, but my hope for improvement didn’t last long. There are some advantages to the next 37%. The story finally spreads out to other parts of Japan and to Japanese POV characters. The characters here are more competent than Jacob and more interesting to read about than him and his fellow Dutchmen. But this section was dark. Dark, dark, dark. Sinister, horrific and creepy.
It was predictable, too – I guessed both of the novel’s biggest twists. It’s easy to do if you assume that the book will get as dark as you fear it will.
Spoiler (HUGE): Show
The book also contained descriptions of bodily functions and other gross things like maggots and people who smear their snot on something after they pick their noses. The syntax was somewhat repetitive and I got tired of it after a while.
Another thing that bothered me: We get a strong chapter and in the POV of Weh, a Dejima slave, so I expected Weh to play a significant role later. But no, that was it; one good chapter about him, an internal monologue that depicts his life as a slave, his pre-capture past and how hard he fights to hold on to his sense of self in the face of multiple degradations and injustices—and then it goes absolutely nowhere. We never get back to his viewpoint nor does Weh have impact on the rest of the plot, even though all the other POV characters do.
There were a few things I liked. The novel has a nice motif of storytelling where the men on Dejima share stories of their pasts. One of the prominent side characters, Dejima’s quirky Dr. Marinus, entertained me. The book is immersive and focuses on a corner of the turn of the 18th century that I never gave much thought to—the Dutch trade with Japan. Most of the last quarter is an improvement over the rest.
But I was so repulsed and depressed by large parts of the story that these things were hard to appreciate. If I hadn’t been forced to read this book for my book club, I would have quit somewhere in the first third. Grade: F/D.
Oooh, wow, just … no. Even without the spoiler information this would be a hard “nope.”
@Jayne: Absolutely. I’m befuddled by the rave reviews by people who normally have what I consider good taste. Lots of five star reviews on Goodreads.
I really wanted to quit the book and if I had been a regular member of the book club I would have. But I run the club for a nonprofit, so I feel responsible to finish every single book. In this case the beginning was “Yuck” and the middle was “Yikes.” I wanted so badly to bail.
@Janine Ballard: That just sounds painful. Let me ask, did all the other book club members finish it or did anyone throw in the towel?
Janine—Great review! This is one of his that I haven’t read; now I probably won’t bother.
Hang on to your good feelings about Dr. Marinus, as he has a part in both ‘Bone Clocks’ and ‘Utopia Avenue’. I loved both of those books and neither is anywhere close to being as gross as you described this book to be.
Janine, thank you for this thoughtful review. I read this book three years ago when I was going through an I-started-reading-this-10-years-ago-and-dammit-I’m-going-to-finish-it phase. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit more than you did. The writing absolutely worked for me; it is, as you say, very immersive and I love reading present tense (I know a lot of people feel the opposite). I’ve forgotten many details of the plot, but whereas you seemed to enjoy some of the later parts of the book, I preferred the first half. Yes, the main character has prig-like qualities. Yes, there’s a lot of “yuck” and “yikes.” The main problem I had with the book was how many characters there were. I wasn’t many pages in when I realized I was going to need to write them down in order to keep them straight. I started on the fly-leaf, filled that up, and kept on going for…5 pages. That’s…(counting)…140 named characters. Too many characters. It was enough of a problem for me that I would hesitate to pick up another book by Mitchell – although I hear Black Swan Green is terrific.
@Jayne: At that point we only had two other members (there are more now). One finished it and thought it was okay but not wow. The other is very picky and opinionated. She only read three chapters and said it was “a good book” but that she wasn’t interested in reading further. I don’t think she got to the freaky spoilery part so this was probably based on the annoying initial part.
@Barb in Maryland: It’s nice to see you post here, Barb. :) I’m sorry that this was the first David Mitchell book I tried because now I probably won’t try another no matter how many raves it gets. If so many people can rave about this one then it’s hard to which of them to listen to when it comes to the others. :-(
@Eliza: I’m glad you enjoyed it, Eliza. I’m fine with present tense unlike many readers, so that wasn’t an issue here at all. But I’m grateful to you for mentioning it because I forgot to and it’s the kind of thing readers should know.
Yes, there were a lot of characters, especially the minor characters in Dejima and the shrine. It was hard to keep track and I particularly struggled with the names of some of the women in the shrine because I’m not that familiar with Japanese naming conventions (and I should be, I have relatives in Japan). If it had been just four or so side characters there I’m sure I could have kept track.
Hopefully Barb can speak to the number of characters in other Mitchell books, since she’s read a few.