416 of 443 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The thousand autumns of Jacob De Zoet" - David Mitchell's intriguing novel on traditional Japanese society
Some gentle advice imparted through bitter experience, don't ever read an introductory chapter of a book on Amazon before it is published. I opened the PDF for the first chapter on David Mitchell's monumental new book "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" some two weeks ago and have wished my life away ever since waiting for its full publication. A warning in addition...
Published on 13 May 2010 by Red on Black
107 of 121 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars big bold brain-teaser
There's little doubt that David Mitchell is one highly special author whose leaps of imagination, literary wit and challenges have found him many fans. And long may he continue to delight and prosper. The literary world needs writers like Mitchell to keep pushing the boundaries. Whether you're going to enjoy the ride is another matter.
The Thousand Autumns...
Published on 28 Jun 2010 by mfl
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416 of 443 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The thousand autumns of Jacob De Zoet" - David Mitchell's intriguing novel on traditional Japanese society,
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The story is set on the man made Island of Dejima a remarkable place built by the Japanese in Nagasaki Bay in the 17th century as a small and heavily restricted "point of entry" into the country for Western foreign merchants. This enclave was a conduit between the thrusting mercantile empire of the Dutch (the origins of which are so brilliantly captured in Simon Schama's "The Embarrassment of Riches") and the traditional, secretive society of Japan with its doctrine of Sakoku ("closed country"). An isolation intended by the Shogunate's to create uniquely homogeneous culture which still has resonance today.
The book centres on a range of very strong characters (I particularly enjoyed the "old sage" of a physician Dr Marinus) but obviously the main protagonist is Jacob De Zoet a Dutch clerk arriving for a five year posting to work for the East India Company. Young De Zoet is a rather pious and anxious individual dedicated to his work and his love of the psalms coupled with a desire to make money and return to Holland to wed a future bride. He is a typical "innocent aboard" but thrown into circumstances that are from simple not least the Japanese hostility to Christianity and the inscrutability of a closed society.
In a short review I am desperately trying to capture the richness and breadth of Mitchell's work without giving too much away. One of the essential features of the story centres on the fact that his fellow workers at the East India Company outpost do not play it straight and corruption is rife. Compounding this is the fact that Dejima despite the influence of Japanese traditionalism is a port and not surprisingly has its own exotic dimensions and distractions. And then there is the giant shadow cast by Japan itself a mysterious and secretive society and a world that Mitchell teases you to glimpse into and discover. It is also not without its pleasing attractions in this case the facially scared but alluring midwife Orito Aibagawa. Then there are a range of other key plots and developments not least the role of a very strange convent, the trajectory of Jacob as a character, the despicable Lord Abbot Enomoto and the introduction of the British here represented by a deliciously bad tempered sailor.
There is something for everyone in "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" a book that is a sprawling cocktail of love, treachery, power politics and brutal violence. Throughout Mitchell writes brilliantly and his sharp turns of phrase are a joy. A baby is described as a "boiled pink despot" while De Zoet is warned at one time of the dangers of foreigners succumbing to the charms of Japanese women as finding themselves "mired in the same syrupy hole".
This book is narrated in the third person and despite the compelling subject matter it is possibly a more straightforward book than "Cloud Atlas". It certainly does take a while to grasp the varying characters and you have to cross reference and return to parts of the book to keep apace. Sub plots abound and with concentration these evolve brilliantly particularly as you devour the second half of this longish but very manageable novel. By the time I reached Chapter 36 "The room of the last Chrysanthemum at the magistracy" I was so fatigued that I was injecting black coffee but the last 60 pages whizzed by.
All in all Mitchell has produced a book of which makes your imagination leap and like all great fiction the sense of satisfaction at finishing the book combines with the slight regret that despite the opportunity for a second or third read it has disclosed its key secrets. "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" is ultimately the dazzling product of a writer already at the height of his powers and if there is a finer novel to be published this year then a "hat" will be devoured in this part of the world. If you disagree before you press the negative vote button please tell me why as I would be delighted to hear from you.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading for the superb ending,
This review is from: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Paperback)I had planned to give this novel four stars; it is finely written and observed, but a little too enamoured of its historical setting for its own good. Mitchell sets his story in Dejima, a man-made island in the bay of Nagasaki, used as a trading gateway between the 17th and 19th centuries. For 200 pages the action hardly escapes its tiny boundaries. We see events largely through the eyes of young Jacob de Zoet, a young and somewhat gauche Dutch clerk, who has just arrived on Dejima. So, as de Zoet discovers the workings of Dejima, so do we. Unfortunately, any action is lightly spread, and it can be a slow read - a pity David Mitchell's editor didn't cut 50 pages or so.
Both the second and third parts of the book are shorter and faster paced. The action moves off Dejima, to a shrine on Mount Shiranui, and later to a British ship approaching Nagasaki, and the book seems to open out. Other characters, less of a blank canvas than de Zoet, come to the fore, in particular Aibagawa, a midwife, and Enomoto, the Lord Abbot and the real villain of the piece.
However, it is for the ending that I changed my mind and decided to give this book five stars after all. Not only is the action gripping, but the final few pages are some of the moving I have ever read. Unbearably sad and poignant, they speak of love and loss, and what a life means. Extraordinary.
107 of 121 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars big bold brain-teaser,
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)There's little doubt that David Mitchell is one highly special author whose leaps of imagination, literary wit and challenges have found him many fans. And long may he continue to delight and prosper. The literary world needs writers like Mitchell to keep pushing the boundaries. Whether you're going to enjoy the ride is another matter.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a big complex novel that takes some commitment to savour. Indeed it's just as likely that you'll be struggling to get to grips with it after three short chapters as equally half way through - though by then you may just have learnt to live with all its machinations. Part of the problem for the naysayers is Mitchell's master intelligence packing to the paragraph rafters; characters, ideas and historical tributaries. It's like being in a room where everyone's shouting to themselves when all you want to do is find a quite corner for a chat with someone you find interesting.
That analogy makes some sense when there is much reading pleasure to be had here but the best description is that joy only comes in waves: of wonderment and loud sticky trudge. Oh for more of those quiet colourful corners to relax in. The plus, of course, is for those that relish a challenging and undoubtedly intelligent read but that still shouldn't undermine those that do, but fail to grasp Mitchell's multi-layered rooms.
Complex books can often seem a little cold and unforgiving and though there's much delight in having conquered, there's an equal frustration in having been defeated. Yes there is a poetic and beautiful heart beating inside this novel and some will see a lithe and energetic body running with it; others may struggle to get past the supposed blubber.
Sadly, though Mitchell has a master craft, more universal appeal isn't forthcoming yet. But maybe that's as much a cause for celebration.
Treat with unbridled joy / caution.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but not great,
This review is from: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Kindle Edition)The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a patchy novel, shifting between the tedious and the inspired. I'm not surprised to see that several readers gave up during the first third of the book as this is by far the weakest part. It's little more than a series of anecdotes and overwrought scene setting and you need some patience to get through it.
However, the book really picks up in the middle section, when Aibagawa Orito takes over from Jacob as the central character, and the ending is also strong. The problem is by the time you reach it there's just been too much meandering and you can't help but feel that Orito would have been a far more interesting character to focus on than Jacob.
The novel is almost like a draft of a much better book that needed a thorough revision by the author before reaching the shelves. It didn't stay with me and a couple of weeks after finishing it, it certainly hasn't stuck in my mind.
Should it have made the Booker shortlist? It's a better novel than some that did, but it certainly isn't the classic that Cloud Atlas was. It's a good read about the era, but ultimately I much preferred Alessandro Baricco's magical Silk on a similar subject.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant evocative story telling,
This review is from: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Paperback)Having enjoyed but also been baffled by "Ghostwritten", it was delight to have Mitchell's brilliant writing applied to what is in essence a simple story of love and morality. The historical moment in which it is set is fascinating and it is made the most of, with rich insight into the lives of the traders and explorers of the 18th century. The last days of the Dutch East India Company and also the last years of complete Japanese isolation form a wonderful backdrop to a great story. Mitchell conveys the period with lots of compelling detail that does also (as other reviewers have noted) make the novel graphic and occasionally stomach churning - but nothing that should get in the way of a good read!
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The language of love,
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)David Mitchell's previous books have all been highly entertaining, if rather wrapped up in the cleverness of their own construction. Dazzling in their construction, they have testified to the power of storytelling and the imagination, if not really much else, tending to be somewhat forgettable after their immediate charm wears off. Storytelling is certainly one of the themes of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but here Mitchell marshals all his writing skills and historical research towards a clear purpose, using language, customs, tradition, history and even music and medicine, all towards expressing the feelings that Jacob de Zoet, a clerk who has signed up for a 5-year trade mission for the Dutch East India Company based in Batavia (Java) with the Japanese at their base in Nagasaki harbour, has for a young midwife he meets there, Orito Abigawa, as well as the impediments of culture, tradition and language that stand in the way of him expressing his feelings towards her and advancing his desires.
Or, you could view it the other way around and see the novel as a historical fiction, and in the tentative, hesitant, cautious courtship between de Zoet and Abigawa see an expression of the growing relationship between East and West - Mitchell's novel is well-researched and generous enough to allow that interpretation also - but with his writing skills clearly advanced and on a new level entirely in his expression of the delicacy of feelings and emotions, (along with perhaps consideration that Mitchell is himself married to a Japanese wife) it would seem that his primary purpose in The Thousand Autumns is to write a wonderful, magical, delicate and beautiful love story.
Storytelling of course comes into it, the theme of books having the power to transform the world and build bridges - cultural as well as romantic - but it's rather understated here in comparison to Mitchell's previous novels, less showy and better integrated. It's there in the book of Psalms that Jacob smuggles to Dejima despite the Shogun's strict ban on any Christian objects being brought to Japan - a powerful symbol and one that is feared by the Japanese - it's there in the creation of a dictionary that de Zoet hopes will bring him closer to Miss Abigawa, and it's there in the medical journals that allow Abigawa to be an important midwife. It's there also in the memories of each of the characters in their relation of the twists and turns of live that have brought them to this point at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The setting and the period - covered in wonderful, relevant detail by Mitchell - all testify to a closed Japan becoming more open to the world outside, gaining trust, of accepting learning over superstition, of science over tradition, of putting people before protocol, the growth moreover not taking place on one side alone, but in the common acceptance of and respect for each other's traditions. Within all that is a rather more personal story about love between a white European and an Oriental woman, with a great mythical adventure built around it. Or maybe I'm letting my imagination run away with me - but that's what Mitchell does so well and isn't that what the best books are supposed to do anyway?
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bereft I've left Japan,
This review is from: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Kindle Edition)I loved this and looked forward every day to immersing myself in the world David Mitchell created. Today I am actually sad I don't have this to return to. A beautiful book with wonderful characters that one actually cares about and feels one knows. I have enjoyed all the David Mithchell books I've read but this one seems to demonstrate his increasing power as a writer. It'll stay with me for a long time and will be a book I'll return to.
If you've not read this yet - then lucky you to have it ahead of you!
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Expectations,
This review is from: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Paperback)Ever since Ghostwritten I have been a great admirer of David Mitchell's work. The innovative structures to his novels, combined with masterful descriptive prose set him at the pinnacle of his field. I had been very much looking forward to reading 'Thousand Autumns', but holding off, as the anticipation of reading a book can sometimes be almost as pleasurable as reading it. Before you start a book there is a myriad of possibilities, afterwards there is only one reality. Perhaps I had built the novel too much in my mind, but I found 'Thousand Autumns' to be like a family Christmas.
This novel is a curious beast. The unwieldy title hints that Mitchell may have been deliberately trying to make his novel inaccessible, and the awkward, meandering narrative backs this theory up. The quality of writing is once again second-to-none. From the queasy opening to poignant conclusion, the novel's description is sumptuous and evocative, but it lacks the accessibility of 'Black Swan Green' or the structural elegance of 'Ghostwritten' and 'Cloud Atlas'.
In essence this is a straightforward historical novel set in and around a Dutch enclave in Japan. Dejima is a far flung outpost of the crumbling Dutch East India Company. Jacob de Zoet is a young clerk hoping to make his name in the company, so that he may return to Holland and marry the woman he loves.
I found the opening hundred or so pages dull and hard going. Much of the dialogue is dialect, and dealt with trading and commercial transactions. It is only when De Zoet discovers that all is not what it seems, and his fortunes take a dramatic downturn, that the novel gets going. After that though he doesn't make another appearance for hundreds of pages, and it's hard to see why he is the novel's title character. This for me is indicative of the novel's main flaw. It is too sprawling, with too many narrative strands. Just as one strand picks up a head of steam, it fades out, and the novel shifts point-of-view. Overall the novel is coherent, but with tighter editing `Thousand Autumns' could have been even more powerful.
The writing style and even the themes explored reminded me of Amitav Ghosh's epic novel Sea of Poppies. I found Ghosh's novel to be the more satisfactory of the two, but before reading it I had had no expectations; if anything I thought I might not like it. So perhaps that is where I missed out. Maybe I was doomed from the start, and this was a novel that would never live up to the one I had imagined.
I may have found 'Thousand Autumns' to be flawed, but it still showcases the considerable talents of one of Britain's finest authors. There is much to admire in this novel, but I urge caution; try not to expect too much.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thousand autumns,
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This review is from: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Paperback)This is the first book I have read by David Mitchell and he certainly is a talented writer. His prose is wonderful. But I felt his story telling let him down. It takes a long time for us to establish what the story is about and even when we do it lurches off to follow side roads that don't necessarily quite work. For long periods we leave Jacob de Zoet altogether and are in quite a different book. New characters appear and disappear almost arbitrarily. The writing remains gorgeous throughout but it's a book for people who like characterisation and excellent prose style and don't care that much about storyline.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Where is the editor before I drop off...,
This review is from: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Paperback)This is clearly a well- reviewed and fine author with a track record...but this book is at least 100 pages too long.
A beautiful setting and wonderfully evokes Japan in the period...we eneter a whole new world which is captivating and the main character Jacob is an engaging and sympathetic person who we warm to...as is the high born midwife/doctor.
So far so good...but then it meanders away for page after page with nothing that impacts the story. I turned 50 pages before i found a plot again in the middle where I was gripped by the woman's confinement...oh, and then we were off on a Navy ship and another 50 pages of yawn before we got back to the story.
I won't buy another by the writer. The back slapping by the reviewers...well glad for them they stayed awake.
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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell (Paperback - 17 Mar 2011)