Book 42: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
I put off reading David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for almost a year. I found his two previous works, number9dream and Cloud Atlas, which were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, too experimental for my taste.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a more conventional, conservative work than those earlier novels. A work of historical fiction, set at the turn of the 19thCentury, it is a beautifully written story that transports the reader to a Japan on the verge of vast cultural and social change.
The principal character is Jacob de Zoet, an earnest young clerk from the Netherlands, who is poised for rapid promotion only to learn that his lofty principles are not welcomed by his superiors. De Zoet and his colleagues live and work on Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki Harbor. The tiny, Dutch outpost was built by the Dutch East Indies Company for the sole purpose of trade with the Japanese, who vigorously limit their contact with the rest of the world.
De Zoet falls in love with Orito, a Japanese midwife, the daughter of a venerated samurai, who is allowed on to Dejima to study with the outpost's resident physician. His courtship of Orito is hopeless. All the more so when her father dies, leaving behind significant debt, and she is sold into service to a mountaintop shrine, where her skills as a midwife are coveted.
Efforts to free Orito from her fate are set against commercial intrigues that pit the Dutch against Dutch, Japanese against Japanese and, of course, the Dutch against the Japanese. Mitchell, too, plumbs the cultural tension that is a constant between the two nationalities to give his story an added inner tension that drives the narrative
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a rich and haunting novel of greed, ambition and love that is always just out of reach.