“Hatless and broiling in his blue dress coat, Jacob de Zoet is thinking of a day ten months ago, when a vengeful North Sea charged the dikes of Domburg, and spindrift tumbled along Church Street, past the parsonage where his uncle presented him with an oiled canvas bag. It contained a scarred Psalter bound in deerskin, and Jacob can, more or less, reconstruct his uncle’s speech from memory.”
I would describe The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as fascinating historical fiction meets the Man Booker Prize. While this particular novel didn’t actually win the prize, Mitchell’s writing has been nominated for many prizes, including the Man Booker. What I mean by this description is that you must read carefully, because not only is there beauty and eloquence in Mitchell’s writing style, but much can be interpreted here. “The Thousand Autumns” refers to the land of Japan, and the setting of this novel is Japan in the year 1799. The Dutch have ventured here to establish a trading partner, and they have found a Japan with a culture not as advanced as the Europeans who try to court them. In addition, they discover culture that is steeped in tradition and superstition.
Jacob de Zoet is a clerk from Holland, sent to Dejima in the Nagasaki Harbor. He is engaged to a young woman back home. Her father has promised his daughter’s hand only if Mr. de Zoet spends five years abroad, earning his fortune. While in Japan, the clerk becomes enamored of a Japanese midwife who is studying European style medicine. As the young woman becomes sold to a questionable shrine, Jacob life is turned upside down when he learns the horrible secret of the shrine. Also, in the midst of this turmoil, there is political upheaval at home, which finally touches their world in Japan.
There are several themes addressed in this novel, from power to subjectation, to religion and superstition. There were times when I felt the novel slowed to the point of boredom for me, but then it would pick up again and keep me enthralled. Despite the occasional “doldrum”, there is much to be lauded about this book.
4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2010