Summary and book reviews of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

A Novel

by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2010, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2011, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

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 fiancée 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.

Chapter One

The House of Kawasemi the Concubine, above Nagasaki

The ninth night of the fifth month

"Miss kawasemi?" orito kneels on a stale and sticky futon. "Can you hear me?"

In the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates.

Orito dabs the concubine's sweat-drenched face with a damp cloth.

"She's barely spoken"- the maid holds the lamp - "for hours and hours...."

"Miss Kawasemi, I'm Aibagawa. I'm a midwife. I want to help."

Kawasemi's eyes flicker open. She manages a frail sigh. Her eyes shut.

She is too exhausted, Orito thinks, even to fear dying tonight.

Dr. Maeno whispers through the muslin curtain. "I wanted to examine the child's presentation myself, but..." The elderly scholar chooses his words with care. "But this is prohibited, it seems."

"My orders are clear," states the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. David Mitchell once stated that his “intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives." Do you believe he accomplished this goal in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? How do you think the perspectives of each culture are portrayed, and are they given equal treatment?
  2. Jacob de Zoet is an honest, pious man, and has a difficult time coping with the corruption around him on Dejima. Discuss the significance of the psalter, and the impacts of his decision to smuggle it onto the island.
  3. One theme of the novel is the power of language -- how does it play into both authority and corruption in the interaction between Dutch ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is so unbelievably good that as soon as I started reading it, I grew anxious about how to convey its brilliance without resorting to overused words like, well, "brilliance." I'll do my best to produce a discerning review, but all I really want to say is: for the love of story, read this book!   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

Full Review Members Only (831 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. It’s certainly no Cloud Atlas, but it is a dense and satisfying historical with literary brawn and stylistic panache.

Library Journal

Starred Review. This painstakingly researched and original novel is hard to pin to any one genre, for it is a historical novel and cultural study with plenty of intrigue and mystery mixed in. It is intelligent and utterly readable at the same time. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

It's as difficult to put this novel down as it is to overestimate Mitchell's virtually unparalleled mastery of dramatic construction, illuminating characterizations and insight into historical conflict and change. Comparisons to Tolstoy are inevitable, and right on the money.

The Guardian (UK)

This may not, quite, be a masterpiece, but it is unquestionably a marvel – entirely original among contemporary British novels, revealing its author as, surely, the most impressive fictional mind of his generation.

The Telegraph (UK)

[This short review] can only hint at the complexity and eloquence of this novel. It will doubtless earn Mitchell his fourth Man Booker nomination and, if there’s any justice, his first win.

The Guardian (UK)

If The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet shows a strong family likeness to [his earlier books], his fifth novel also spins fresh creatures from a prodigious creative DNA. From some angles it looks a more conventional novel of historical events (and pseudo-events) than its forerunners. Yet it invites us to think and feel about a clash, or convergence, of civilisations in a fierce new light...

Reader Reviews

Cloggie Downunder

a brilliant read
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the fifth novel by award-winning British author, David Mitchell, who classifies it as historical fiction. Jacob de Zoet is a young Dutch clerk, a Zeelander working for the Dutch East India Company, on a five-...   Read More

Valerie

A well-written, captivating work of historical fiction
I had a hard time settling into this book, with some of the flowery language turning me off at first. ("...a cacophony of frogs detonates?" Really?) But I kept at it, and I ended up really enjoying the story, at least for the most part. ...   Read More

chetyarbrough.com

Historical Fiction
This book misses the mark of great story telling because David Mitchell fails to develop characters or a theme that sparks enduring interest and memory. Mitchell breaks no new ground in this historical fiction. The story of Japan’s isolation and ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Dutch East Indies Company vs. Sakoku

There are two nations with two utterly incommensurate notions of power at loggerheads with each other in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. On the one hand, the Netherlands is represented by the Dutch East Indies Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC in Dutch), a government-chartered company founded in 1602 to monopolize the Netherlands' trading in Asia. A chartered company allowed its shareholders to pool capital and dilute risk in order to embark on farflung missions. The VOC was the world's first multinational corporation and the first company to issue stock. Its rights far exceeded those of today's multinationals, because it was allowed to wage war, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies. The ...

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