David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors, so I was very excited about the release of this new book. Unfortunately I think that David Mitchell has matured as an author very quickly and so this book will disappoint much of his broad fan base.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set on the island of Dejima at the beginning of the 19th Century. Dejima is the Japanese trading post, the only place where Europeans are allowed to exchange goods with the Japanese. The small island is inhabited only by translators, prostitutes and traders; with access to mainland Japan over a small fiercely guarded bridge. Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk trying to prevent corruption on the island, but his life is changed when he falls in love with Orito, a young midwife.
The first chapter is a gripping, but graphic account of a childbirth in which Orito breathes the life back into a seemingly dead baby. Unfortunately the next 150 pages of the book lack this vivid story telling and I found it very hard to understand what was happening. New characters seemed to be added on every page, their names changing based on who referred to them. The added problem of the Dutch and Japanese misunderstanding each other only compounded my confusion.
As a piece of historical fiction this book is a masterpiece. It is very well researched, but at times I felt the accuracy was its downfall. It took me six weeks to read the first section as I had to re-read it several times. If I hadn’t been a massive David Mitchell fan then I admit that I might have given up at this point, but I am pleased I made the effort.
The next 200 pages were a big improvement. The story of Orito’s imprisonment in a monastery and the shocking baby farm that existed there was a satisfying read. I loved Orito and wish the whole book had concentrated on her.
I was quite disappointed by the ending, but I’m afraid I can’t let you know about that without giving things away. All I can say is that I wasn’t a big fan of any section including Jacob de Zoet. The complexity of the text meant that I couldn’t generate an emotional response and so I didn’t connect with him. I found all his sections confusing and almost impossible to follow with a single reading.
Overall this is an impressive book which deserves to win the Booker prize, but I think the complexity will put off all but the most determined reader.
Are you a big David Mitchell fan?
Do you hope this wins the Booker prize?