Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010) is the third of Mitchell's books that I've read (after Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten), this one thanks to a loan from the lovely Corie.

The novel is set at the dawn of the 19th century in the one gateway from the west into Japan -- a small and highly regulated Dutch trading post, Deijma, located in the Nagasaki harbor. Jacob de Zoet is a newly appointed clerk, beginning a five year term at the post where he hopes to make his fortune, return to the Netherlands, and marry his sweetheart. He and the new commissioner are also teaming up to rid the trading post of its complicated web of corruption and double dealing.

On Deijma, there is a western doctor who runs a training hospital for Japanese students. By a special dispensation granted after she miraculously delivered the near-dead son of the Nagasaki magistrate, Orito Aibagawa, professional midwife and daughter of a samurai, is allowed to study with the doctor. Orito's face, disfigured by a childhood accident with a fire, repels most of her fellow countrymen, but entrances the young clerk de Zoet as soon as he sees it.

Trade goes on, corruption is ferreted out, and a complicated and not entirely reciprocated romance starts blooming. Things get rough, however, when Orito's father dies and her stepmother commits her to a mysterious and secretive temple. As Jacob and Orito's other admirers soon discover, Oriito is losing more more in the creepy nunnery than just her freedom.

Mitchell is an amazing novelist, and this detailed and well-researched piece of historical fiction is no exception. Still, I didn't like this one as much as the other two of his novels I've read, and I'm not entirely sure why. Part of it is the pacing, I think, and the deliberate turn away from the female characters at the midpoint in the book. I got a little bogged down in Dutch / Japanese / English politics, and the arrival of a British ship in the final third didn't do much to build up my interest. All that aside, however, this is still an enjoyable read with a lot to chew on. In fact, it got such great reviews that I feel like I missed something in my reading. This might be one to think on for a little while...

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