Sunday, January 16, 2011

Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Author: David Mitchell
Publisher/Format: Recorded Books MP3 audio - 19hours;
Publisher/Format: Random House (2010) read as ebook 496 pages
Narrators: Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox.
Characters: Jacob de Zoet, Orito Aibagawa, Ogawa Uzaemon
Subject: feudal life in 19th century Japan,
Setting: Nagasaki  and Dejima Japan
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: public library

This is definitely going to be one of my top 5 of the year.  It has everything...lush scenery, a heart-stopping-page- turning plot, memorable characters, a sense of history, and a delicate brush of language so suitable to the Japanese temperament.  It definitely put me in mind of James Clavell's Shogun, a book I read and loved while we were living in Japan many years ago.

Mitchell gives us a love story, a warrior story, and a well-researched view of the Dutch East India Trading Company in the waning days of its prominence.  Jacob de Zoet, nephew of a Dutch pastor, has signed on as a clerk for a five year stint in the company at their office on Dejima, a small man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki.  There he meets the young Japanese mid-wife who is training under the resident Dutch doctor.  When the midwife is kidnapped by a cult living high in the mountains, de Zoet wants to rescue her.  From there we see a long struggle to find the group, and convince authorities of the atrocities being perpetrated.

The story is very involved. There are many sub-plots, a shipload of characters both Dutch, English, and Japanese, all presented realistically, often with warm humor, but without the overblown romanticism one often finds in books about feudal Japan.  Although I lived in Japan for five years, and traveled around quite a bit, I'm not an expert.  I do know enough however to be able to say this is as good as it gets for story-telling.  It's as real as it can be, and it shows us a people with an innate sense of dignity, a code of honor, and a country of exquisite beauty.  Mitchell even gives us a particularly beautiful poem to describe a setting at the beginning of chapter 39.  It is obvious why he was once again on the Booker Prize Long list for 2010.

I read this on my e-reader along with listening to  the audio book. Both formats are elegantly done and I will probably even purchase a print copy to keep in my permanent library.  I could not pass up the chance to hear the wonderful Japanese pronunciations of English words.  One of the major characters is the interpreter  Ogawa Uzaemon , and his puzzling over words and meaning brought back many fond memories of my struggle to make myself understood.

David Mitchell's prose does not have that problem.  It is absolutely perfect.


  1. I thought this was very good as well; great review Tina

  2. Wow! This sounds so wonderful-everything I like; "shipload" of characters and many subplots in an exotic setting. Thanks for the great review, Tina.

  3. Yup, this is going on my list and not just because my husband's name is also David Mitchell. :-) I remember how much I loved Shogun.

  4. By the way -- thank you for participating in my Mailbox Monday giveaway last week. You were one of the three winners. And I am a winner too because now I found your blog. I signed up as a follower.

  5. You have reminded me of how much I want to read this!


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