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the complete review - fiction
The Thousand Autumns
of Jacob de Zoet
general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author
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A- : grand storytelling, good story
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus, but most quite impressed, certainly by aspects of it
From the Reviews:
- "The delights of reading Mitchell are many and, though The Thousand Autumns is patchy, his exuberance and storytelling talent easily make up for that." - Jose Borghino, The Australian
- "His new novel is structurally his most conventional; a linear narrative, it is the first book Mr Mitchell has written wholly in the third person. (...) When the hero and heroine are separated, the book still has 300 pages to go. Mr Mitchell fills the gap with a number of clever, if somewhat disconnected set pieces. The result is uneasy. As so often happens with his writing, the reader is left feeling more seduced than satisfied." - The Economist
- "Mitchell writes with erudition and wit, but not a great deal of subtlety: It's far too easy to distinguish the bad guys from the good (the latter tend to have anachronistically enlightened attitudes toward women and people outside their race). And despite some magnificent narrative set pieces, like a breathless raid on a Shinto convent where Orito is held captive, the book feels diffuse, with too little forward momentum." - Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
- "Linear in structure, this is the first of his books to be written exclusively in the third person. (...) If he has an abiding theme, though, it is interconnectedness, and it comes as no surprise to renew acquaintance here with characters and situations from his previous works. Mitchellís research has been meticulous. One consequence is a richly stocked prose that at times feels surfeited with minute particulars. (...) (F)or all the moments of brilliance, the chemistry doesnít quite work." - Henry Hitchings, Financial Times
- "(T)he final effect is confused. The main problem seems to be that Mitchell hasn't decided if he's writing a straight historical novel, a grandly themed fable or a cheerfully trashy romp. Or rather that he's decided to write all three, but without a structure robust and flexible enough to keep the different elements in balance." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian
- "From some angles it looks a more conventional novel of historical events (and pseudo-events) than its forerunners. Yet it invites us to think and feel about a clash, or convergence, of civilisations in a fierce new light. (...) With a touch of Umberto Eco as well as his acknowledged debt to Haruki Murakami (we even meet a magic cat), Mitchell unspools his winding plot with a zesty relish for genre-fiction tricks and treats. (...) However densely charted and richly sketched, this sumptuous imbroglio never drags. Its author often risks high-level pastiche but writes with such invigorating edge and dash that scarcely a sentence stands idle." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
- "The novel, obviously, is not perfect. By the end, I was still unable to distinguish with any certainty such an array of character names. It takes concentration. But it also repays it. (...) His fans will open the novel feeling nervous of disappointment, yes. But then they will close it in tears and turn immediately back to page one to begin again. To them, I say: don't worry, dive in and lose yourself in a world of incredible scope, originality and imaginative brilliance. David Mitchell has done it again." - Katy Guest, Independent on Sunday
- "The narrative is pockmarked with too many meanwhile-back-at-the-temple leaps, and the thread shows too often when Mitchell tries to stitch together the book's set pieces and character studies. In his earlier books, the disconnect of stories across time and space were fascinatingly and proddingly jarring. Here, they're frequently just jarring. Which isn't to say that Thousand Autumns is a flop -- far from it. When not tripping over the intricacies of its plot line, the novel features some of Mitchell's most luscious writing yet." - Eric Banks, The Los Angeles Times
- "David Mitchell's novel, a disappointment, is also Shandean in its garrulity and busy traffic of accident and incident, and in many details. (...) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a long shot, misses by a mile. But it is not an important failure." - Leo Robson, New Statesman
- "(A) better designation for Mitchell's novel might be "historical science fiction," so complete is its sense of existing in a parallel universe -- one recognizable as a version of our own, but in which all the details of daily life have been reimagined from the ground up. (...) One can condemn the decadence of the Shogunate and still mourn the defeat of its exquisite cultivation by the crude bombast of the West. Fully imagined and yet ultimately ambiguous, Mitchell's microscopic portrayal of this remote universe offers a reflection of the many ways in which we see and understand the past." - Ruth Franklin, The New York Review of Books
- "He's meticulously reconstructed the lost world of Edo-era Japan, and in doing so he's created his most conventional but most emotionally engaging novel yet: it's as if an acrobatic but show-offy performance artist, adept at mimicry, ventriloquism and cerebral literary gymnastics, had decided to do an old-fashioned play and, in the process, proved his chops as an actor." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "(T)his is a book about many things: about the vagaries and mysteries of cross-cultural love; about faith versus science; about the relative merits of a closed society versus one open to ideas and development (and the attendant risks and corruptions); about the purity of isolation (human and societal) versus the messy glory of contact, pluralism and global trade. It captures Japan at a crucial time in its history, on the cusp of opening its borders and becoming a world power, and catches Holland as its own colonial prominence is waning. If the book sounds dense, thatís because it is. Itís a novel of ideas, of longing, of good and evil and those who fall somewhere in between." - Dave Eggers, The New York Times Book Review
- "By any standards, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a formidable marvel, and it would be perverse to hold Mitchellís natural facility against him. Yet the book is still a conventional historical novel, and drags with it some of the fake heirlooms of the genre. (...) Despite the novelís liveliness and deep immersion in the foreignness of its world, there is something a bit mystifying about its distance from contemporary life, something a little contrived in its brilliant autonomy." - James Wood, The New Yorker
- "There is no retreat, here, into the conventions of historical fiction. All Mitchell's architectural wizardry and verbal intensity are at play Ė but now subordinated solely into the service of his subject matter. (...) This is the novel that establishes his maturity. Which is not to say that it is faultless. So thoroughly does Mitchell saturate his world with the detail of his knowledge of it, that Ė particularly in the opening quarter Ė the labour of the writing can at times become a labour of reading. There are periods of stasis amid the brilliance" - Alexander Linklater, The Observer
- "The results can at times feel almost afraid of more contemplative depths. (...) With its combination of virtuosity and scope, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet will delight the many fans of Mitchell's earlier novels. Like its title -- which means "Jacob de Zoet's Japan" but implies a span of time beyond human capacities -- the book unfolds, when Mitchell decides to let it, into moments of capacious poetry." - Damion Searls, San Francisco Chronicle
- "(I)t has a sophistication and depth that leads me to suspect we've only glimpsed the author's potential so far. (...) The novel makes clear that what was exhilarating about Mitchell's earlier work wasn't the playful architectures or the dalliances with sci-fi; it was the exhilaration of the language itself. Mitchell doesn't just write poetically, he breaks into poetry in an astonishing cadenza towards the conclusion. (...) For a tour de force, it's surprisingly nimble, emotionally complex and simply unforgettable." - Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday
- "No sooner has Mitchell veered towards melodrama, however, than the storytelling opens still wider. What had hitherto been a story of corruption in a trading post at the end of the world now moves into geopolitics (.....) And it's this kind of free-flowing descriptiveness, this sheer revelry in language, this fascination with what it can and can't explain, that underpins an already fascinating story. So credible has Mitchell made this melange of love story, quest, myth, melodrama and historical fiction that you'll probably finish it, as I did, and straight away check out what bits were true to the historical record, which facts were bent and which dates massaged. Then you'll realise that none of this matters, because masterpieces make their own rules, and this book is definitely one of them." - David Robinson, The Scotsman
- "David Mitchellís fifth novel, an exotically situated romance of astounding vulgarity, has some things to be said for it. It will certainly entertain the simpler reader that lurks within all of us (.....) Certainly Mitchellís narrative resources here are dismayingly thin, and overwhelmingly limited to the two things that film does naturally -- dialogue and an observation of something moving. The full range of novelistic possibilities is hardly even envisaged, and what Mitchell is prepared to do is often placed in awkward juxtaposition." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator
- "(S)pectacularly accomplished and thrillingly suspenseful (.....) Switching style, mood and tone, while continuing to deal with the same themes, is a hallmark of his fiction. Here, this is adroitly effected. (...) Imagining, with corresponding fullness, not just its charactersí present predicaments but their pasts and futures, it brims with rich, involving and affecting humanity." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "Itís a graphic, pulsing start that boldly declares what a brilliant book this will be. (...) Mitchell has perfected the art of pleasing both crowd and critic here. (...) And all this in the most extraordinary prose. Every sentence yields glorious surprises that no one else could think up (.....) What authorial direction there is is unobtrusive yet meticulously precise, achieving perfect clarity in just a few, exquisite words." - Holly Kyte, The Telegraph
- "Mitchell wants to get everything in, not simply generically (...) but also historically and intellectually. (...) (I)n the end itís all a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean on speed." - Kasia Boddy, The Telegraph
- "Jacob de Zoet is thus an historical novel interested less in depicting real events (...) than in what a particular historical situation can reveal about human behaviour. (...) Mitchell is clearly still most at home in the first person, and Jacob de Zoet is at its best when a single character is allowed to recount his or her particular story. Here, though, as in Mitchell's first three books, there is also a problem with language. (...) As compelling as it is strange, the novel is testament to the originlaity of Mitchell's vision and his great craftiness as a storyteller." - Patrick Denman Flanery, Times Literary Supplement
- "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet draws us into the redolent atmosphere of those grand 19th-century epics by Melville, Dumas and Sir Walter Scott. (...) But even as the forces of evil ramp up, this remains a resolutely thoughtful novel about a country wrenched into the modern age." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Set almost entirely on the artificial island of Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki at a time (around 1800) when Japan proper was still essentially off-limits for foreigners, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is loosely based on fact.
Dejima was an outpost of the Dutch East India Company from which limited trade was conducted with Japan -- the only place where foreign trade could be conducted --, but it was kept cut off from the rest of the country, and any exchange and communication was strictly controlled.
Foreigners were not even supposed to learn the language, while the Japanese were strictly prohibited from leaving the country or becoming Christians, as Japan tried to keep itself in its cocoon of isolation as long as possible; a challenge from the British (as Dutch colonial might collapsed during this period) that dominates the last part of the novel is based on an actual incident.
The central figure in the novel is Jacob de Zoet, given the opportunity to make his fortune in this outpost so that he might make an acceptable match for girl waiting for him back in the Netherlands.
It is a challenge: there's small and large-scale corruption, and de Zoet is tasked with reconciling the books to determine just how much cheating has been going on -- a job that wins him few friends in the small community of company-employees who earn their fortune with a bit of self-dealing on the side -- and skimming as much off the top as they can.
Before he even realizes it, de Zoet is tied up deeper in the local machinations than he can imagine, and much of the fun of the novel is in the ongoing high-stakes jockeying for position between the traders (and the low tricks they engage in -- true honesty is in very short supply here).
Some contact between Japanese and foreigners is unavoidable in Dejima, and at the forefront here are the translators who act as intermediaries.
But there is other interaction as well, including the doctor, Marinus, teaching Western medicine to some local students -- including a talented young woman named Orito, allowed this special privilege as a prize for her success as a midwife with a particularly complicated birth.
De Zoet, of course, falls for her, but any romance between Japanese and Dutchman is essentially impossible -- and greater complications arise from others' interest in Orito as well.
(A secondary storyline about one very nasty 'House of Sisters' -- one of Orito's stations -- where women of child-bearing age are kept for truly perverse purposes allows the narrative to venture at slightly greater length onto Japanese territory.)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an enjoyable, large-scale novel of closed societies, with most of the action taking place within the span of not much more than a year.
Cut off from headquarters in what is now Jakarta -- there is, at best, an annual window of exchange when a company ship comes to pick up and deliver the goods --, the company-men are largely left to their own devices -- with predictable results.
The relative straight arrow de Zoet has trouble playing along at the very base level of most of the others, but he does find a friend in the doctor; his infatuation with the Japanese woman, however, also complicates matters.
Mitchell does well in describing a Japan that suffers for its isolation and is unprepared to meet the challenges it will inevitably soon face, even as they seem to exert such firm control over Dejima.
As a scholar tells a group of academicians:
we are a ramshackle farmhouse with crumbling walls, a collapsing roof, and covetous neighbors
Mitchell can get too enamored of the learned or clever digression -- from detailed descriptions of medical operations to a variety of anecdotes -- but for the most part the narrative moves along at a good and entertaining pace; the double-dealing and paybacks, in particular, make for great interpersonal dynamics.
The 'House of Sisters' storyline strays quite far off the beaten path, but is almost forgivable, since it makes for rather exciting fun (though the Murakamiesque cat that puts in an appearance feels rather forced).
Mitchell tells a good story, and despite all the twists he offers it remains very straightforward: he is in command of his material throughout, and excels at all sorts of period detail.
There's a bit much language-play along the way, as if he was trying out different voices and approaches to keep from getting bored, but The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet certainly reads well enough most all the way through.
And if Mitchell winds it all up in conventional manner -- the last part is essentially an epilogue, set in 1817, tying up what otherwise would have been loose ends -- even that he handles very well.
A jolly good read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 18 August 2010
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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:
Other books by David Mitchell under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See also the Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
English author David Mitchell was born in 1969.
He currently lives in Ireland.
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© 2010-2011 the complete review
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