The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

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Since I last wrote, I finished reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, and I’m now reading The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I thought I might as well give my opinion on it since I feel a little bit like I’ve had a lack of inspiration for this blog lately, as well as my other blogs. I’ve been writing daily in my notebook, mostly daily pages and random scribblings. Yet blogging and the internet seem to hold less of a lure for me at the moment, even though I could never give it up!

So, David Mitchell has written a huge book about, well, its hard to explain. It is essentially a kind of love story, even though it is not a conventional romance. It is about Jacob de Zoet, who is a clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company in feudal Japan (specifically, the port of Dejima). He has left a fiancée at home, and promptly falls for the daughter of a samurai in Japan. Interwoven with his story is the story of Japanese culture from a Dutchman’s eyes – quite a bizarre sort of mix of cultures, but interesting to see how it used to be. It is one of my first forays into historical fiction – I tend not to pick up historical fiction purely on the basis that it is historical. I’m impressed by the depth of research and detail packed into this book – at the end of my edition, David Mitchell talks about his many years of extensive research. To me, it felt like Thousand Autumns was difficult to get into, and it is such a dense book that it felt like reading a historical essay at some points. However, once the narrative got going, I felt like Mitchell was delivering a book full of real and palpable things – the sights, sounds and (nasty) smells of a feudal trading port. Not to mention that it is not just Jacob – the samurai’s daughter and an interpreter also get to tell part of the story. The book has certain details that might just be too much if the reader is squeamish, since the woman he falls for is a midwife, or training to be a midwife, and some of the happenings are both gruesome and humorous.

As for me, I think one David Mitchell book is enough to sustain me for two months – I doubt I will read another of his books straight away. He has a brilliant story telling style, and I admire how much work must have gone into this book – on one hand it daunts me and makes me wonder if one the novels I write will ever need that much research. He mentions somewhere that one sentence sometimes took a day to write because of the amount of detail and research needed, and the writing of this book almost killed him before he got it done. However, the prose appears almost effortless, which is what a reader wants from a book. It isn’t the kind of book you can read in one sitting – it took me a while with a few breaks as I just couldn’t take in so much detail all at once. It is worth reading if you’re interested in reading a story of scandal, midwifery, love and loss in feudal Japan. I did fall in love with the story in the end – I’m fascinated by Japan and would love to visit there one day.

So – worth reading, but be warned – it will take a while!

The mind has a mind of its own. It shows us pictures. Pictures of the past and the might-one-day-be. This mind’s mind exerts its own will, too, and has its own voice. – David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

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