Book 172: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell, 2010.Genre:
Historical Fiction. Japan. 17-18th Century. Other Details
: Hardback. 469 pages
The story opens in 1799 on the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour, which serves as the Japanese Empire’s only port. For more than 150 years the Japanese have kept the West at bay and the only way that the Dutch East India Company (VOC) is allowed to trade is under strict restrictions and the merchants are effectively interred on the island. Jacob de Zoet, a devout young clerk, has come to the East in order to make his fortune so that he can win the hand of the wealthy young woman he loves back in Holland. However, these intentions are overturned after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor. Her work as midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate has led to her being granted the right to study medicine with the Dutch physician, Dr. Marinus on Dejima.
The narrative has three main plots. There is Jacob's story on Dejima and his interactions with his countrymen and the handful of Japanese he has dealings with; also Orito's story that takes a dramatic turn following the death of her father when she is sent away to a nunnery associated with a sinister mountain cult; and finally of the British attempt, based on The Phaeton Incident, to force the Dutch to leave Dejima and to take over trade with Japan.
I found this a beautifully written, lyrical novel that completely transported me into Mitchell's vision of Japan. It is an obviously meticulously researched novel. Before reading this novel I knew nothing about the history of Japan during this period, unaware of its isolation policies or how it restricted contact with the West while still maintaining some trade. However, Mitchell's writing is quite dense and did demand a fair amount of concentration. I read it in three days but rather wished I had given myself a longer period to savour its richness and complexity.
The cover art for the UK hardback edition was exquisite. It is embossed so that there is a ripple of shimmering turquoise when it catches the light. Official website for 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet'
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