The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
- book by David Mitchell
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David Mitchell loves to write books that challenge him as a writer, and writing historical fiction about a Dutch trading post in the bay of Nagasaki certainly qualifies – especially without writing in Dutch or Japanese, while still trying to maintain an air of authenticity in the language and dialect.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet succeeds, for the most part, in transporting the reader, and if you like where Mitchell is taking you, you’ll enjoy the ride. Occasionally, he overdoes it with prose that seems written mostly to amuse himself (“A smoke-dried Dane makes a Finn’s cock of a tangled vang”) or that is just a bit too experimental.
The central plot in Autumns borrows heavily from Mitchell’s own work – a group of women are drugged, enslaved, exploited, and lied to about their eventual fate. This also happened to the fabricants in Cloud Atlas, and Somni-451’s rescue included similar plot twists.
In Autumns, Orito uncovers part of the evil plot, but not the entirety of it (that is left to the male characters); like Somni-451 in Cloud Atlas, she seems to represent an ideal of both innocence and wisdom.
Towards the end of the novel, a whole new cast of characters, the crew of the HMS Phoebus, is introduced. We only get a brief glimpse into their motivations, and learning about the captain’s gout or the rivalry between the lieutenants seems like a distraction from the fate of the protagonists.
Mitchell couldn’t resist the temptation to weave a highly fictionalized version of this interesting historical incident into the novel - but I would much rather have spent more time with Orito, revealing perhaps more of her humanity rather than a less interesting and more stereotypical transition from victimhood to sainthood.