Monday, July 5, 2010

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet
David Mitchell
Random House
Copyright: 2010

The product description:
In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the most influential novelists in the world. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review called him simply “a genius.” Now David Mitchell lends fresh credence to The Guardian’s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from that which preceded it.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a stunning departure for this brilliant, restless, and wildly ambitious author, a giant leap forward by even his own high standards. A bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history, it is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.

The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancĂ©e back in Holland.

But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings.  As one cynical colleague asks, “Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?”

A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author. 
I got sent an ARC copy of this book from Random House through work a few days before it hit the bookshelves, but I only just finished reading it yesterday. The timing was rather amusing, as I've been on a bit of a Japan and the Orient kick in my reading lately, so this was a book I was glad to start reading right away. It was also the first book by David Mitchell that I've read.

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet is one of those books where you're best off if you have long periods of time to read it and a chance to really focus on the characters and story. Otherwise, I found at least in my case that I was trying to figure out what was going on and what relation it had to the events of the story.

I found the story to be quite interesting, if unpredictable and the characters to be well developed and 'real'. I'm saying "unpredictable" for the story because every time I thought I could predict what kind of a story this was, I found that I was quite wrong. It's been over a day now, and I'm still trying to figure out if the ending of the book is a "happy ending" or not. In some ways it reads more like a memoir than a novel, but it's also the different threads of the story.

There's the main character, Jacob, but there are also a number of other viewpoint characters as well, such as Miss Abigawa and a lot of the other minor characters of the story. There were a few times when a new character was introduced abruptly that left me wondering who they were and why they were so important to the story, at least at that point.

I would like to say that David Mitchell has written a very well researched story in The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet, at least it feels right, but I know very little about this time-period, culture and region. However, it does match up with what I've read in the other books so far. There's certainly a wealth of little details, but they don't bog the story down any.

Overall, I have to say that this was a really good book, and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to any lover of historical fiction.

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