The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

My bookies today posted their odds for the 2010 Man Booker, and as I expected David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet at 9/2 has joined two-time winner Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America at 4-1 at the top of the list as near co-favorites to win this year’s prize. (Remember bookmaker odds are not an estimation of quality; rather they are a reflection of where the betting public is putting its money.) Mitchell’s novel received enthuiastic reviews when released in the UK earlier this year and an equally positive reception with its North American release a few weeks ago — no less a star than Dave Eggers enthused about it in the New York Times.

I am a serious David Mitchell fan and when 2010 dawned this book was at the top of my “looking forward to it” list. I have read all four of his previous works; Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were exceptional; Number9dream and Black Swan Green well above the norm. While the latter has a fairly traditional structure, the first three mentioned established some Mitchell characteristics — multiple story lines, intricate plots and language and a rare ability to continuously engage the reader in a kaleidoscopic experience.

So why am I so disappointed by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet? I started and abandoned it twice, believing that either too high expectations or the wrong reader attitude might be to blame. I persevered to the end the third time through and while it was a better experience, I still find the book wanting. I will try to explain why — at the very least, the review may provide some guidelines to potential readers on what to look out for.

First, a very brief outline of the plot. The Jacob De Zoet of the title is a Dutch clerk whom we meet in 1799 as the ship he is aboard approaches Dejima, an artificial, fan-shaped island off of Nagasaki, 200 paces long, 40 wide. It is basically a collection of warehouses and is the cloistered Japanese Empire’s sole port — once a year a ship from the Dutch East Indies Company arrives for a trading session of some weeks, when it departs a handful of Dutch are left behind to manage things and get ready for the next visit. Jacob has signed on for a five-year term, the only way he could persuade the father of Anna back home that he would have the means to be a worthy husband. He has another, far trickier assignment. As the assistant of the new Chief, Vorstenbosch, he is to rigorously examine the books of previous years to document the corruption the company is certain has been taking place.

Few Japanese, beyond the Empire representatives and members of the Interpreters’ Guild, are allowed on the island. Only one, Orito, is a woman. Her face badly scarred by a childhood burn, she is a practicing midwife who has saved the magistrate’s child in a difficult birth. As a reward, she is allowed to train with Dr. Marinus as his only female student — he also trains a handful of Japanese, looks after the Dutch, but mainly pursues his interest in botany.

Complications ensue — the book is 479 pages after all (Mitchell tends to write long books). Scores of other characters are introduced, new schemes of varying import are hatched regularly and there is a fair bit of violence, but all of those bigger picture stories are viewed through the lens of these two characters.

Which, for me, is the first and perhaps most serious of author Mitchell’s problems. He is an incredibly meticulous and detailed writer, who builds his story one intricately detailed block at a time, with immense amounts of necessary background — not unlike the Russians, say Dostoevsky, who take 300 pages to establish the elements of the story before they actually begin it. That trait, in fact, is one of the very real strengths of Cloud Atlas. But that novel has six different story lines, set in different eras spread across centuries, all in different places with different casts of characters — and it is a joy to hold all those elements together in your mind as the author gets ready to start. In this book, there are only two central stories and two lead characters, a clerk and a midwife, and that simply isn’t enough structure on which to impose Mitchell’s impressive mounds of detail.

A welter of voices, intricate prose and a cat’s cradle of narration, it turns out (at least for me), require an equally complex web of stories — and this novel simply doesn’t have that, which makes the reading all too often tedious and annoying, You know something big is eventually going to happen (it is no spoiler to say it does), but the process of getting there is wearisome.

That concern could be set aside if the prose style and language are so strong as to carry themselves (and those who like the book do salute the prose) but that sure didn’t work for me. Mitchell frequently sets his detail in dialogue, so consider this example from midway through the book:

“‘Master Ueda replied that the Koyamas were well aware of my origins as the daughter of a shrine but saw no objection. They want a daughter-in-law who is dutiful, modest, resourceful, and not a’”– Orioto’s voice is joined by sisters who lovingly recite the sobriquet — “‘prissy sherbet-guzzling miss who thinks “hard work” is a town in China. Lastly, my master reminded me that I am a Ueda by adoption, and why did I suppose the Uedas to be so very far below the Koyamas? Blushing, I apologized to my master for my thoughtless words.’”

“But Noriko-san didn’t mean that at all!” Hotaru protests.

Hatsune warms her hands at the fire. “He is curing her shyness, I believe.”

The blizzard of punctuation in that quote, incidentally, is another frequent effect, which I found jarring. When you are having trouble with prose, it is the little things like that that eventually really get to you. Here is another example from just two pages later:

“The story goes,” Yayoi says, curling Orito’s hair around her finger, “that when I was born with these” — Yayoi taps her pointed ears — “the Buddhist priest was called. His explanation was that a demon had crept into my mother’s womb and laid his egg there, like a cuckoo. Unless I was abandoned that very night, the priest warned, demons would come for their offspring and carve up the family as a celebratory feast. My father heard this with relief: peasants everywhere ‘winnow the seedlings’ to rid themselves of unwanted daughters. Our village even had a special place for it: a circle of pointed rocks, high above the tree line, up a dry streambed. In the seventh month, the cold could not kill me, but wild dogs, foraging bears, and hungry spirits were sure to do the job by morning. My father left me there and walked home without regret.”

(Potential spoiler coming up.) I went to the middle of the books for those quotes because it sets up my final grumble (for the review — I have others). In both those quotes, Orito and Yayoi are sharing their background — the two are effectively imprisoned at a “nunnery” in a shrine where they are “engifters” who are “gifted” by the masters and accolytes and the resulting offspring are taken from them. Remind you of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? Or perhaps Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro? It certainly reminded me; both those authors did it better and I say that having liked neither book. Again, it may have been a case that my frustration with Mitchell’s book caused me to make exaggerated criticisms but every section of the book seemed to be derivative of something done better by someone else — and I got no sense that these were homages or references to those authors, because they just go on too long to be a nod of honor. Besides, Atwood and Ishiguro are still writing and not yet ready to be elevated to Patrick O’Brien-like imitation (yes, that is a hint to another derivative section).

Mitchell does eventually set the active part of the novel going for the last 100-150 pages and, when he is in a go-forward mood, he is quite good at action. Again, I am out of step with most of the people who like the book — they admit the ending is weak, I found it the best part of the book. Perhaps I was just relieved at approaching the finish, but when Mitchell did get into an active voice here, he reminded me why I liked his previous books. (For a recent, excellent discussion of how he makes all this style work successfully check out Hungry Like the Woolf’s review of Cloud Atlas here.)

End of KfC rant. Despite the positive critical reception for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, I should note that I am not the only dissenting voice. My fellow Shadow Giller juror, Trevor Berrett at themookseandthegripes had some similar concerns in his review although he does end up much more positive than I did. And a couple of readers whom I respect on the Man Booker debate site have also said they abandoned it. For a much more positive assessment (with a far more complete look at the plot than I have provided) and an interview with David Mitchell, check out John Self’s Asylum thoughts here.

I very much wanted to like this book and again note that others found much in it. Despite my respect for Mitchell, I honestly don’t think my problems with it are my fault. All of which probably makes it a certain 2010 Man Booker winner. Oh well.

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29 Responses to “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    this looks to be favourite for booker ,I ve it on my tbr pile i have enjoyed his other books always think he is inventive and changes styles between books ,all the best stu

  2. Kevin Neilson Says:

    Hi KfC, this is just a speculative stab in the dark, but Mitchell’s offerings since Cloud Atlas strike me as valiant efforts to write good modernist fiction without experimental points of view, styles, genres, plotting, time lines, etc. I suspect that he’s a novelist divided. And it will be very interesting to see how he handles this dilemma in his future work. Thanks for the rant. Best, KevinfromCalifornia

  3. Mike S Says:

    Kevin, your comments square with mine views. I loved Black Swan Green and I can pride myself in reading a wide variance of styles. However, the tiresome dialogue, as you said, really put a wrench in the works for me, and I did indeed abandon this about 1/3 way. That quotes are often split by digressions telling us a position change in a cat, for instance, made it all the worse. David Mitchell has an exceedingly nuanced, clever mind, but sometimes (make that many times), restraint is the mark of genius.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Kevin (from California) — I am inclined to agree with you, although I think that may involve some wishful thinking on my part. I think his first three novels came so close (and maybe even succeeded with Cloud Atlas) to being something special that he may be at a bit of a creative dilemma now. I don’t put Black Swan Green down, in fact I like it. And as much as I think this novel fails (and admit that I am in the minority on that front), if you told me he was publishing one next year, I would be first in line. I certainly look forward to his next effort.

    And by the way, don’t even think about opening a fast-food franchise and trying to export your initials. KfC already has that subsidiary under control :-).

  5. Colette Jones Says:

    Thousand Autumns was a major disappointment for me also. Every thought was explicitly told (in italics too, yuck – I see that in The Slap, the occasional characters’ thoughts are not italicized and they have much more impact for that reason and also for being infrequent). A character described as good stayed good and a character described as bad stayed bad. There was not much need to think at all, and therefore not my kind of book.

    Like you though, I will buy the next Mitchell. My husband and I have read them all and we will continue to do so. I didn’t like number9dream – I thought the violence was gratuitous, but loved Black Swan Green. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas tops. He’s 3 for 5 with me.

  6. Tom C Says:

    Its interesting to read another take on a book I enjoyed so much. I thought it was excellent, allowing me into a world I would never have encountered otherwise (I assume Mitchell’s research is impeccable enough not for me to have to suspect that its all a great fabrication). I enjoyed the sheer breadth of the book, and for me the vast range of characters supported the complex scene-setting. Hate to say it, but my money would be on this one. Despite my comments above, your review is excellent as usual

  7. Anna van Gelderen Says:

    This book was not such a major disappointment to me as it seems to have been to some people, but I still did not find it as satisfactory as Mitchell’s earlier novels, all of which I loved. My major squabble is the ludricous set up in the monastery. While this kind of thing worked quite well (in my opinion) in the dystopian novels Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale I think it strikes a very false note in an otherwise meticulously researched and historically faithful novel such as this one.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: The predictable characters issue was one of those on my grumbles list that I did not have room for. Thanks for raising it and I agree with you completely. It is interesting that almost every one of Mitchell’s novels doesn’t “land” for some reason with readers who like the rest. I’ll ponder that. For me with this one I was mainly bored until I got to the engifters — and that was so terribly derivative and embarrassingly bad that I became actively hostile towards the book. I did settle down in the last bit.

    Tom: Thanks for explaining what you liked about the book — I always feel when I write a grumpy review that I’d like to be able to indicate the positives that others found which eluded me. That’s why comment sections are so important. As for the betting (and I still have 8.5 books to read), I’m going to go against this one. When I look at some of the other authors on the list (Tremain, Dunsmore, Donoghue) which are rather non-traiditonal Booker types, I’m inclined to think the jury will go somewhere else. Then again, I am always wrong in predicting what Booker juries will do (quite good on Giller juries, actually, but that’s another couple of months away — stay tuned).

    Anna: The monastery/nunnery part was what pushed me over the edge as it is so shallow (while seemingly going on forever). I appreciate your point about the historical research — perhaps part of the reason I found the novel lacking was that that aspect just didn’t interest me very much (my fault, not the author’s).

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds to me like a straightforward large plot driven novel.

    There’s an interesting time and place, a character positioned to explore it and some stuff that happens that brings it all to life. Is that right? The setting is then strange enough that Mitchell ends up with the classic issue that much SF suffers from. You have all that setting you need to communicate, so you start chucking in massive infodumps or scenes where characters explain to each other things real people would either already know or wouldn’t bother to say.

    For me, this is one I’ll read when I want a book that’s about things other than prose and character – when I want a book about description and plot instead.

    What it doesn’t sound like to me is a Booker novel. I’m guessing shortlist but not finalist. I now wait to be proven wrong…

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Actually, I don’t think it is a “straightforward large plot driven novel.” Part of Mitchell’s strength in his books that I do like is that he is the master of the set-up — he loves constructing the foundation that allows him to launch his action. And when it works it is not an info-dump but an impressive construction of a basis for a real story.

    Alas, for me this book has far more reminders of your other phrase: “scenes where characters explain to each other things real people would either already know or wouldn’t bother to say.” You haven’t read the book, but that is an excellent summary of my frustration.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks for both the correction and the confirmation John.

    I’ve not read any Mitchell yet and I really do want to. For some reason every review I read makes him sound like a good sf writer, with the strengths of the form but also the weaknesses. Like a Neal Stephenson who can write endings.

    That said, he’s plainly not an sf writer (Cloud Atlas seems to be the only one with any SF elements). It’s probably just that he shares an issue with that form, communicating a rich and alien setting to readers without the strings showing. It’s hard to do.

  12. The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet « Page247 Says:

    [...] KevinFromCanada [...]

  13. kimbofo Says:

    I borrowed this from my library about three weeks ago and am yet to read it. Will need to get my skates on before I get a letter demanding its return! I’ll be interested to see which camp I fall into once I get around to reviewing it. I very much enjoyed Black Swan Green but thought Cloud Atlas was ‘show-offy’ (if that’s a term) and have therefore been hesitant about exploring any of his other stuff. I’m not really qualified to comment (on the basis I’ve not read his entire catalogue), but I get the impression he is over-rated.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’ll be interested in your impression, Kim. My observation would be that those who are enthusiastic about the book find elements in the Japan-Dutch historical aspect and the exercise of power and authority that eluded me. That is strange, because those kind of contextual things are normally what appeals to me — I just found them very shallow in this novel.

  15. Guy Savage Says:

    KFC: I’m not into historical novels so this one never appealed anyway. But I am glad to see something other than a glowing review–at least another viewpoint.

    I’ve been a bit fed up actually by the book. Everywhere I turn there it is. I am beginning to feel that it was the only book written last year. All the other writers heard it was in the works, gave up and slunk off depressed.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: If you don’t like historical novels, you won’t like this book. Don’t be too down on Mitchell — his previous works were very good and many people do like this one. MacEwan and Amis probably got as much pre-publication hype as this one did — it is probably a sign that Mitchell came closer to succeeding that he got more post-publication attention.

  17. Guy Savage Says:

    Nothing against Mitchell–just knew this book wasn’t my thing. But…drumroll…I do have a copy of The Pregnant Widow.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Now that will be interesting. From my perspective, The Pregnant Widow does contain some echoes of translated Italian works that I have read, faint though they may be.

  19. Guy Savage Says:

    Money is one of my all-time favourite books, and then I sprang for Yellow Dog and lived to regret it. I have high hopes for The Pregnant Widow…Italian echoes? Well I’ll let you know.

  20. Ruth Seeley Says:

    I haven’t attempted any David Mitchell yet (although I’ve got library fines to pay on Cloud Atlas – oh joy) because I got bogged down in A.L. Kennedy’s Everything You Need. I’m here to say I survived all 566 pages of it, but then I’m an unusually persistent person. I so wanted to like her work, because I love her web site and the columns she writes for The Guardian. I was beginning to wonder if I just couldn’t empathize with the search for the lost father theme, but then remembered I’m a big fan of Mona Simpson – and read the new Camilla Gibb, The Beauty of Humanity Movement immediately after the Kennedy, so it’s not thematic revulsion. I’ll give Kennedy another try in a year or so and I’ll attempt some Mitchell sooner, although I don’t think I’ll start with this one – the excerpts you quoted are the kind that make me want to hurl books at walls. Of course I seem to recall being 45 pages into a conversation in one of Henry James’ novels with no idea whatsoever by the end of the section who was even talking…. ;)

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ruth: Maybe you should try A.L. Kennedy’s short stories (reviewed here)? They come at you quite a bit quicker than a 566-page novel. As for Mitchell, I’d start with Ghostwritten and plan to move on to Cloud Atlas — the latter is definitely the better book, but Ghostwritten sets you up for it.

    I am in my Booker homestretch now with only a few more to go, so Canadian fiction is starting to move up the agenda. In fact, three arrived just yesterday — Alison Pick’s Far to Go, John Lavery’s Sandra Beck and Fauna. And Camilla Gibb’s book is supposed to be on its way. I am thinking already that the Giller will be quite a bit more interesting than the Booker this year.

  22. IKE | The Thousand Reviews of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet Says:

    [...] On the other side of the continent, Eric Banks checks in for the Los Angeles Times and Damion Serls opines for the San Francisco Chronicle. Bloggers include Flavorwire, John Self at The Asylum and KevinfromCanada. [...]

  23. whisperinggums Says:

    I have finally read this and did rather enjoy it despite its flaws – it gets a big bogged down in a lot of detail but I had this strange sense of being irritated and engaged at the same time, and its themes just keep piling up which makes it a bit of a grab bag. But I enjoyed the prose for the most part – and particularly liked the humour.

    I do love your “blizzard of punctuation” description. It was one of the first things that hit me and I tried to explain it to some online bookgroup members but couldn’t get my message across clearly enough. Wish I’d read this review (but then I never read reviews until I’ve read a book – if I think I’m going to read it – so I can come at it freshly).

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    wg: In retrospect, I think I would have liked this book better if I had waited for the right time (i.e. winter, with less distractions) to read it. Because I was looking forward to it so much, I think I rushed into it. It is wordy and detailed — but I suspect a more relaxed read would have made that less of a flaw.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      Thanks Kevin. Timing of reading can be an issue sometimes can’t it? I really need to read David Malouf’s An imaginary life again because almost everyone I know liked it and I found it a slog but I’ve loved almost everything else of his I read. I do know that I was tired and over-extended at the time … so I will read it again. (It is quite short, which is in its favour for a second go round!!) (PS Excuse the typo in my previous comment – “big” is of course supposed to be “bit”.

  25. Bek Says:

    A bit late to join the convo but hey ho, here’s my two penneth!

    I really had a very different experience with this book, I am a self-confessed addict of Mitchells and I love the fact that you can never anticipate what is coming next with him, so always approach his work with a completely open mind.

    I found the fact that it took more than two thirds of the book to build to something actually quite exhilarating, I was desperately chomping through the pages. The layering and contextualizing was exquisite. In fact I found the prose very nourishing.

    I find Mitchell to be a very generous author, I guess that is not for everyone, but when I read I am generally left feeling unsatisfied, I always want to know more, each charachters back story, the justifications for thier actions, I want to know more about the characters and the encounters, this is not the case with David he keeps on giving. This book did not disappoint on that front.

    Agreed it was not his best, but it was still an incredible feat of wordsmithery.

    Oh and by the way I absolutely refute your statement “If you don’t like historical fiction you won’t like this” I am a thoroughly bored by historical fiction but was thoroughly stimulated by this.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Bek: Thanks for your thoughts and for bringing discussion of this novel back into circulation. While we had different reactions to the book, I can certainly understand how it did strike a different chord with you and very much appreciate that your shared that here.

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