The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell is one of those books, that at least for me, creeps up on you and before you know it the books gone from “mmmm it’s ok”, to total utter adoration, I absolutely loved this book. Set on a small trading island off the coast of Japan at the turn of the 19th century, it tells the story of Jacob de Zoet, a clerk from the Dutch trading company, who has signed up for 6 years overseas in an attempt to make his fortune before returning to marry his sweet heart. At first I found de Zoet to be a little annoying, he whinged a bit and was behaving like a love sick puppy (and the object of his attention was not his Dutch sweet heart) but I guess that’s the beauty of books like this, to be totally swept away by the transformation of a character, the character can’t start out from page 1 as being perfect.

I love how Mitchell has written this book, told from the point of view of many different characters, you often don’t see key events, instead you stumble upon them alongside a minor character as that character comes across a main character at the tail end of doing something significant. Or you don’t see the event at all and are drip fed clues about what happened from another character’s recollections.

I loved how Mitchell portrayed the two clashing cultures of the Dutch and the Japanese; the Dutch on the island are dependent on the guild of interpreters and when we see the interpreters from the viewpoint of the Dutch characters the interpreters seem clumsy and two-dimensional but de Zoet himself is clumsy in his dealings with them as he doesn’t bother to think about some of the things he asks them to do. Yet in the chapters told from the viewpoint of the Japanese characters they are much more fluent and heroic.

I think there are probably many types of scenes / characters in books that are difficult to do well, one such type of scene is the death scene, it must be so hard to strike the level as just right, too melodramatic and it’s just stupid and yet not enough emotion and it feels like the character meant nothing after all. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet there are several death scenes and Mitchell does every single one of them beautifully, I don’t want to say which one was my ‘favourite’ as I really hadn’t been expecting that character to die, not like that anyway, so I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone else, but it’s the first major death scene (for anyone who’s read the book and knows what I’m talking about), that scene haunted my thoughts for days after listening to it.

Another thing I think must be difficult to write well is the bad guy, a good bad guy must think whatever he’s doing has perfectly legitimate reasons (I can’t remember the origin of this quote, which I’m probably paraphrasing really badly, it may be Neil Gaiman, but the bad guy must be the hero of his own story). Mitchell’s bad guy thinks he’s perfectly justified in his actions and consequently it makes him chillingly and deliciously evil (and again I’m not going to be more specific than that because I think Thousand Autumns really is one of those stories where you need to go into it knowing as little as possible as to what is going to happen).

I listened to this as an audiobook, I am now very tempted to get this is an actual book now, which is only the second time I’ve loved an audiobook that much to want to do that. So, as you may guess, I’d highly recommend this one but with a caveat, it is one of those books that does take a little while to truly get into, but patience with it is highly worth it.

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