Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reading Challenge Redux: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

So, I guess I will just have to start my latest book challenge post by pointing out the obvious: I did not complete my reading challenge from last year.  Back in January of 2013, I tasked myself with reading 12 different books all by authors that I'd already previously read a single title by. I haven't fared terribly: I've read and written about 8 of the 12 books and it has been a wonderful way to get a bit more familiar with some authors who I already knew that I liked. I snuck the 8th book in under the wire, finishing it in mid-December but only taking the time to write about it now. That book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (M) by David Mitchell, won't be the last book on my challenge list that I write about though, as I have decided to just continue through 2014 with my challenge and finish the other books in due course. Stay tuned for those in the coming months.

Photo © Paul Stuart
I have a number of friends who are huge David Mitchell fans: he's an author that people will passionately talk to you about when they hear you are reading one of his books and rapturously list their favourite title from his short but impressive oeuvre. My previous experience with David Mitchell was reading his Booker Prize shortlisted Cloud Atlas - an epic novel that travels from the distant past to the far future in six different "nested" plotlines (the first part starts, abruptly ends midstream and the 2nd beings, and so forth and then comes back to each story in turn). It was a book I read voraciously, intrigued by each of the separate yet somehow linked storylines that were filled with vivid characters, rich emotion and intriguing plot twists. It was a book that has a little bit of everything: historical fiction, noir thriller, science fiction, romance, etc. and for me was the sort of book I was sad to close when I finished it.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is Mitchell's most recent book, published to strong reviews in 2010. Like Cloud Atlas, the book jumps from part to part, but unlike that book, it has a single, linear narrative. From Wikipedia, a fairly straightforward description of the plot: "The novel begins in the summer of 1799 at the Dutch East India Company trading post Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki. It tells the story of a Dutch trader's love for a Japanese midwife who is, however, spirited away into a sinister mountain temple cult."

As with my experience with reading Cloud Atlas (M), the main characters in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet were one of the novel's great strengths. The Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet is in some ways an odd choice for a main character, bookish and thoughtful, his character doesn't scream leading man and yet he is the perfect place to base a novel that is in itself a thoughtful study.  The Japanese midwife Orito was for me the most interesting character, a woman of science in a time and place that did not allow for such non-traditional roles. The interaction between two characters, each out of place in their world for different reasons, was engrossing.  Beyond those two there is a wide cast of characters from a surprising range of backgrounds for a novel set in isolationist Japan of the turn of the 19th century making the book an interesting study in cultural difference and language also.

Speaking of language, the title refers to a Japanese idiom: "Ichijitsu-senshuu" or "One Day A Thousand Autumns" which is used to describe waiting, a suitable sentiment for a novel in which the various characters are waiting endlessly -- for love, to return home, to prove themselves. This is not a novel of action (although action filled sequences exist within it) but a novel of time passing and how people react to it and how it effects them.,%20david%22I enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, yet it let me down somewhat. It was perhaps too long, and too thoughtful: too good at creating the thousand autumns of waiting that its title refers to. I found myself turning the pages very slowly, reading small parts and then somewhat reluctantly returning to the book a few days later. The character of Orito being my favourite, I wanted more of her story but found that her thread of the book was left dangling somewhat. She is such a striking character the book could have been hers alone, but it is of course the story of the eponymous de Zoet.

Further reading suggestions if you like the sounds of these two David Mitchell books?

Any of Mitchell's three other books (M) seem to be a good place to start: Black Swan Green, Number9Dream or Ghostwritten. As I said at the start, Mitchell's fans are passionate and I know a number of people who have read all his books and speak enthusiastically about them all.  They and you may be excited to know he has a 6th novel due this year: The Bone Clocks is expected in September.

There are definitely parallels to be drawn between Mitchell and Haruki Murakami (M), although I don't think fans of either should expect an exact mirror of styles. Both authors are known for experimentation and incorporating the fantastical into their works. Mitchell, who has lived in Japan and speaks Japanese, also frequently brings in aspects of Japanese culture into his works.

Novelist suggests that for readers who enjoy the historical detail of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet may also enjoy Storm Rider (M) by Akira Yoshimura. Set in the same era as Mitchell's book it explores the life of a young Japanese boy who leaves his homeland for the seafaring life, eventually landing in San Francisco. Readers who enjoyed de Zoet's observations of Japanese culture and life, may appreciate the opposite experience of a Japanese character exploring a new culture.


  1. Great post. Excited to hear about a new novel. I think I might be one of those David Mitchell fanatics :)

    1. I am really looking forward to the new one as I well. I was a little lukewarm on this one I'll admit, but that hasn't changed my over all interest in Mitchell's writing.