2010, Books, Fiction

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

This is my first Mitchell. I found it in a Little Free Library or on someone’s lawn and I just grabbed it because I’d seen Cloud Atlas (though never read it) and figured it could be interesting. I had zero knowledge of the story or setting.

I really liked this a lot. When I thought there were only three parts I thought it was almost in Sonata Form, or something like that, using different perspectives in the first two only to combine them in the third. But, though that’s not how it worked out, it still felt like a rather masterful way of telling the story, with the different perspectives opening up the world further and further.

I found the setting fascinating. I know nothing of Japan at this time nor do I know much about the Dutch empire. Regardless of how accurate the novel is, it feels accurate and I found it a really fascinating place to set a novel.

I like how the first two parts of the novel culminate in crushing disappointments, disappointments that feel very likely given the circumstances but which are still gut-wrenching. That feels like it’s going to set us up for something particular. And I must say I was worried about the climax, I was worried it was headed directly for some classic cliched east-west conflict in which our hero would have an outsized role in saving our heroine. But worse, that it would be tinged with that classic cliched trope of a westerner finding out about some eastern horror and not only having to fight it but to be the moral person in the situation.

So I’m very happy to say that’s not what happens and something more subtle and more unexpected happens. And I also like how he subverts the climax with something that was probably quite common historically, a lack of complete knowledge. (I bet some people find it very frustrating but I quite enjoyed it.)

I can’t say how fair this story is to Japan. I understand Mitchell tried to make it fair and the climax feels more more fair to Japan than the early parts of the story, but I can also imagine someone finding it still drenched in typical western orientalism. I do not know enough to comment.

I think this would make a great miniseries, say 3 and a half episodes (i.e. the four episode would be short). The title wouldn’t work very well for marketing purposes but it feels pretty adaptable and would allow for some real differentiation in style between the episodes. I hope somebody does it, and well.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed the setting. I enjoyed how the story was told and how the plot unfolded. And I like how the story played with our expectations.


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