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Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell

In order to win the hand of his sweetheart Anna, Dutch Jacob de Zoet must make his fortune, and that is how he finds himself bound for the Japanese port city Dejima.  Immediately on arrival he frets about his family Bible, worrying it will be censored in a place where he isn’t permitted to practice his own religions, but as he begins to experience life at the port he realizes he has larger problems to contend with.  Even when he attempts to expose injustice, he is himself punished for not colluding in various schemes to get rich quick, and he finds himself disturbingly attracted to a young midwife that couldn’t be further in character from his intended.

I am probably the only person in the entire English-speaking world that hasn’t fallen in love with this book.  It’s my first read by David Mitchell and I wonder if my expectations were too high.  There were things I enjoyed about it and things I didn’t; I could see its merit but I’m afraid I’m forced to conclude that this really just wasn’t perfect for me.

My main problem really was that I just didn’t get on particularly well with Mitchell’s writing style.  It felt weighty and elaborate, in that it actively slowed my reading down in ways I didn’t appreciate.  His writing has been praised up and down for its beauty, but I only felt like there were moments of brilliance amidst a whole lot of muck.  I didn’t appreciate the clipped sentences, short paragraphs, broken dialect – all of it just genuinely frustrated me.  But then he’d go off onto something else, and immediately I’d be startled out of my annoyance by a lovely passage.  I especially appreciated the ones about language and thought, so much that I’ve even managed to put a bookmark in (very rare, I assure you):

The word ‘my’ brings pleasure.  The word ‘my’ brings pain.  These are true words for masters as well as slaves.  When they are drunk, we become invisible to them.  Their talk turns to owning, to profit, or loss, or buying, or selling, or stealing, or hiring, or renting, or swindling.  For White men, to live is to own, or to try to own more, or to die trying to own more.  Their appetites are astonishing!  They own wardrobes, slaves, carriages, houses, warehouses and ships.  They own ports, cities, plantations, valleys, mountains, chains of islands.  They own this world, its jungles, its skies, and its seas.  Yet they complain that Dejima is a prison.  They complain they are not free.

When I read that, I wonder if I should have just spent more time trying to read it instead of getting annoyed that the book would not be read at my pace.

Anyway, I liked other parts of the book too, such as Jacob’s overall honesty and faith. I thought he was a wonderful character; I liked the other Dutch characters considerably less and as a result I wasn’t crazy about the sections set on the port.  What I really did enjoy was Orito’s narrative in the middle, in actual Japan.  This was the first and last part of the book that I was actually compelled by and genuinely enjoyed reading.

And then I got to the end, and suddenly had a strange nostalgic fondness for the whole journey.  I thought the end was really well done and got across not only the epic nature of Jacob’s life but also the very fleeting nature of it.  Who is going to care what we’ve done, what we’ve stood for, after we’re dead?  Unless we are very famous – and even then only sometimes – no one is going to remember.

So I closed the book feeling a lot more gracious towards it than I did when I started, and that’s why this review is so conflicted.  Because I genuinely did not like parts of it, felt they were a slog, wished I didn’t have to read the book.  Then I loved other parts of it and wished the whole book could have made me feel that way.  I can certainly see why The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has been nominated for the Booker prize, and I have decided I will try some of Mitchell’s other work to see if I like it better.  This one was an effort, but I do think it was worth it, and I’m glad I read it.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.

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