Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Review)

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell, 2010
496 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
July 2011

Critics—universally—consider David Mitchell one of the most versatile, talented authors around. Capable of fabulous, mind-bending pyrotechnics, he's dabbled in surrealism, post-modernism, and now, with this novel, he's given us a gorgeous old-fashioned 19th-century narrative in the vein of George Eliot.

Actually, A Thousand Autumns is a historical novel, suspense-thriller, and melodrama—steeped in historical veracity and charged with high-impact emotionalism. In other words, it's seat-of-your-pants reading with characters you care about.

Briefly: the action begins in 1799, as young Jacob de Zoet (yacob da zoot) leaves behind his fiance in the Netherlands and sails half-way around the globe to Japan. A clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company, it is Jacob's task to review the ledgers and ferret out corruption. In the process, he makes both enemies...and friends. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful Japanese mid-wife, who is eventually sealed away in an mountaintop convent. A rescue ensues, British bombard the coast, and evil is thwarted.

What gives the book its heft is not the plot, nor the writing—luminous and richly textured though it is—but the ideas woven within. Thousand Autumns offers a brilliant cultural study of two worlds—and philosophies—colliding: East vs. West, science vs. religion, superstition vs. medicine. Both cultures distrust, even disdain, one another—yet each learns and borrows from the other. And both cultures struggle with the emerging concepts of science and philosophy that undermine traditional beliefs.

Mitchell has said his "intention [was] to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives." This he has done, undercutting traditional Western stereotypes of exotic, mysterious, "inscrutable" Asians.

Thousand Autumns is one of the finest books I've read recently—it's stunning—and I think book clubs would have a wonderful time reading and discussing it.

See our Reading Guide for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

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