This is a series of reviews of my favorite books published between 2010 and 2019.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010)
Jacob de Zoet is a trader with the Dutch East India Company who has come to the trading post Dejima, in the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan, in the eighteenth century.
Just before I read this novel, I finished a book about reading that exhorted me to read closely, paying attention to every word choice. Following that advice is well-rewarded when reading Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell has clearly chosen each word carefully, sometimes making up a word if the perfect one didn’t already exist. He has assembled these words into poetic sentences, evocative paragraphs, and vivid scenes like intricate jewel boxes. When reading Jacob de Zoet, you have no choice but to read closely.
The novel is divided into four parts, although the last section is essentially an epilogue. The first, and strongest, section is set on the artificial island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki, at the turn of the nineteenth century. There the employees of the Dutch East Indies Company are confined as they trade with Japan, forbidden to pass through the land gate for fear that they will infect the cloistered country with their culture or, worse, their Christianity. There the clerk Jacob de Zoet toils over the company books, exposing endemic corruption, much to the annoyance of his colleagues. Then he sees Miss Aibagawa, a midwife with a burn disfiguring half her face, who is studying with the Dutch doctor on Dejima — and he unexpectedly falls in love.
The scene where Jacob meets Miss Aibagawa is probably the most delightful scene in the book. Dejima’s mascot monkey runs into the warehouse where Jacob is working, carrying a human leg that he has pilfered from the surgery just after its amputation and pursued by Miss Aibagawa. Jacob, hoping to impress her, is roundly humiliated by the monkey, after which Miss Aibagawa coaxes the monkey out with the last of Jacob’s tobacco. A later scene in the hospital garden is just as memorable. Jacob unexpectedly confesses to Miss Aibagawa that he thinks she is beautiful, while the plants and insects surrounding them mirror the myriad emotions he feels.
The second part of the novel leaves Dejima and Jacob’s point of view, and here the story loses its way somewhat. Miss Aibgawa’s father has died in debt, so she is sold to a powerful monk to live in a mountaintop nunnery, where there are mysterious, sinister goings-on. Mitchell hints at the supernatural but never fully explores this theme. I may have disconnected somewhat from the story during this section, but the last scene was both shocking and powerfully moving, catapulting me back in.
The third section returns to Dejima, with Mitchell playing around with point of view. A British ship is approaching the island, its captain intent on wresting the prize of trade with the Japanese away from the Dutch. Again, the final scene, in which Mitchell plays with the images of the black and white stones used in the game of Go, black and white butterflies and the Japanese tradition of ritual suicide, packs a powerful punch.
Mitchell is a wonderful writer, and this book is an immense pleasure to read. The reader becomes immersed in the exotic world that the author has crafted. Unfortunately, the story itself isn’t as tightly constructed as the prose, and the plot sometimes seems to flounder. I found myself wishing that Mitchell had either plunged headlong into the supernatural elements he subtly introduced or elided them altogether. Only these few flaws keep The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet from being a perfect novel.