When ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell was chosen for book group I had two reactions. The initial was an inward groan as I had read ‘Cloud Atlas’ and sort of hated it (it was pre-blogging but I found it confusing, cold and rather patronising – I know lots and lots of people have loved it) which annoyed me because the cover was so lovely. The second reaction I had was ‘ooh this could be a challenge’ and I found myself both strangely pleased at that. So which was it? Well, oddly it was both.
Upon finishing ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ I had four reactions. I thought both ‘wow the author can write’ along with ‘blimey it’s rather formulaic, a little pretentious and boy is David Mitchell letting you know how much research he has done ‘. I also came away thinking ‘that was a challenging and thought provoking read’ along with a sense of ‘thank goodness that’s over’. Completely polar feelings in one book I find rather fascinating, but what was it about it that made me feel like that? Well the story, or stories, was the first factor.
The book is set in several parts. If you were to only read the first chapter of this novel, and indeed the first part of the book, before buying it you would either feel disgusted or completely gripped as the scene of a traumatic and complicated birth is graphically played out over the first few pages. However from that point the novel suddenly changes to the tale of Jacob de Zoet who has freshly docked on the floating village of Dejima, just off the harbour of Nagasaki, in 1799. Here as a clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company, trading basically, he meets a young midwife, Orito Aibagawa, who he rather falls in love with.
Along with all this Mitchell creates a huge cast of characters (over 100) and the way of life at the time but I couldn’t say, despite how descriptive he is – and he really is, that the characters, other than Orito, were vivid and nor could I say that I felt the atmosphere of the place. It felt a little cold and one dimensional, so much was going on that I couldn’t quite focus and here Mitchell let me as a reader down as instead of allowing me to build some of the picture myself he explains so much in such detail I felt like his intellect and imagination was being forced down my throat and he didn’t trust me to use my own. That might seem harsh, but all is not lost quite yet.
If I am 100% honest had it not been a choice for my book group I would have given up on Jacob and his tale there and then. However I like to try and read a book group from cover to cover and thank goodness I did as part two was just incredible. It is Orito’s tale, after Jacob believes she has vanished, which sees her in a nunnery that is not all it appears to be at first and in many ways is some kind of religious cult which needs children to be born, how those children are produced and what for I will leave for anyone who chooses to give this book a whirl but I was left stunned by it and followed Orito the way you would follow a thriller, pages were speedily being turned. I also liked the feel that this was almost a homage from Mitchell to writing of the 16th and 17th century, it felt rather ‘Dracula’ meets ‘Castle of Otranto’ in some ways.
Sadly after part two we head back to the world of Jacob again of which I shall say no more other than the hard work you put in during part one of the book sort of pays off… sort off. I personally wish that David Mitchell had written ‘The Thousand Autumns of Orito Aibagawa’. Whilst all that Jacob de Zoet encounters is rather interesting in terms of history, it does start to feel like a text book, there are even pictures every now and again, and my imagination seemed to be penned in. Yet when I was with Orito the book came into its own, I was gripped and found her story fascinating.
‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet’ has quite a lot going for it, and I am fairly sure that anyone who has read Mitchells previous books will have read it by now regardless and most likely loved it. For me it was a book of two halves. I am certainly glad I read it, I feel I challenged myself in terms of returning to an author I vowed I never would – but I am not convinced I will go through his back catalogue just yet, though at the same time I will be very interested to hear what he writes next. 6/10
Rather like ‘Brighton Rock’ though its not a book I instantly loved its definitely one that’s got me thinking about what I read and the way I read it – and of course what I look for in a book. I don’t always want comfy, I need a book like this to give me a jolt sometimes. I am sure lots of people have read and adored this book and I would love to hear from you if you did and of course if you didn’t. It received a mixed bag at book group with one member loving it and really getting passionate about it (and who I am sure would love any more Mitchell recommendations you might have), a few of us having quite liked it and several other members who couldn’t get through the first part. So a mixed bag, but sometimes those books make the best book group books don’t they?