Our second NaNoWriMo book review this month is the enigmatic and poetic ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell. I actually have a terrible confession to make – this was the first of his novels I read and now I’m wondering how on earth I managed to miss his books for so long. Mitchell’s most famous novel is arguably ‘Cloud Atlas’, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and he has written a few books set in Japan.
‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ is set in late 18th century Nagasaki, during the period of trade between Japan and the Netherlands. Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutchman hoping to make his fortune and earn the hand of his love in marriage, lands on the man-made island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. The island has been the sole gateway between Japan and the west for two hundred years. Jacob is employed as a scribe to a trading vessel but is drawn into a world of smugglers and deception.
There are several themes in this book but, rather than list them one by one and spoil the magic for you when you read it, I’ll breeze through my favourites. One of the overarching narratives is the clash of Japanese and western culture; we see a Dutch scientist teaching young Japanese ‘modern’ scientific medicine, and opportunistic Dutchmen engaging in illicit smuggling with the natives and lying with exotic concubines.
Elsewhere, Jacob becomes infatuated with a gifted but disfigured Japanese midwife who is mysteriously spirited away to a remote temple in the mountains. This clash of cultures isn’t just about the Japanese and Dutch but also the African slaves who have been dragged halfway across the world and the English who are trying to force their way back into trading with Japan.
‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ is one of the most poetic and effortlessly beautiful books I have read in a long time. Mitchell has a talent for painting scenery and unfolding conversations like no one else. There is so much depth and information in the story, so it’s not really the sort of book you can read without your full attention, but it’s a wonderful read and it will not surprise you to learn that Mitchell spent four years researching it.
According to book legend, if that’s actually a thing, the idea for this book came to Mitchell when he was backpacking in Japan on a teaching trip. He had been looking for a cheap lunch in Nagasaki and came upon the Dejima museum. “I never did get the lunch that day,” Mitchell said, “but I filled a notebook with information about this place I’d never heard of and resolved one day to write about it”. Talk about living the dream! I believe that it’s best to say as little as possible in a book review, otherwise I risk spoiling a lot of the joys of reading for you. ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ is a beautifully-written book and definitely one for the Christmas list. I love it so much that it’s November’s Book of the Month!