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.