I don’t even know where to start with this one. Historical fiction tends to be a pretty dense read, and David Mitchell tends to write pretty dense books, and my mind is swirling after finishing The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
First, let me say that this book could have really used a good Cast of Characters page or two. Broken into three main sections (followed by two more epilogue-y sections), each is full of secondary and tertiary characters who are introduced once, disappear for thirty pages or so of small font, and then referenced again with no gentle reminders of who they might be — Mitchell doesn’t hold your hand.*
Second, let me hedge that it’s a slow read. It takes a while to grow on you. You’re thrust into the world of 18th Century Japan through the trading port of Dejima and the eyes of young Dutch clerk Jacob who has just arrived there in the hopes of making his fortune, and you know what he knows. Less, really, unless you’re well-versed in the history of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (and kudos if you are). And I didn’t find Mr. de Zoet particularly likable, at least not at first. The second part of the novel abruptly shifts perspectives to a different character just when I was thawing towards de Zoet, and involves some fairly awful things happening to several innocent people.
But if you have the time, and the patience, the book really grows on you. Mitchell’s writing is superb, the depth of research is astonishing (like any good piece, you feel completely immersed in the world), and you find people to root for (my favourites were Dr. Marinus and the midwife Orito Aibagawa). By part three (another abrupt shift, and the addition of an entirely new ship, yes ship, full of characters) I was invested, and by parts four and five (a chapter each), I felt like I was under a spell.
Special mention goes to the first section of the reader’s guide at the end, where Mitchell gives us a little inside baseball on what it’s like to write historical fiction. Learning about “bygonese” (his name for dialogue that aims more for feeling authentic then actually being authentic, or “inaccurate but plausible”, which could be difficult to read for long periods, or even understand, depending how far back in time we’re going).
So four stars, with some points lost for clumsy transitioning between sections, needlessly overcomplicating the cast of characters, and not nearly enough Dr. Marinus.
*Which, as an aside, makes me think of a problem I’ve noticed recently: when I’m reading an ebook, all I want is to hold the Real Book in my hands and turn the pages and smell it and feel where I am in the book and know whether I’m further in or out by the weight of its pages. But when I’m reading a Real Book, I keep wanting to drag and highlight passages I like, and put my finger on the word that I don’t quite understand and hold waiting for the little popup dictionary, or make a quick review note, and if I forget who a character is I can highlight their name and look it up on the X-ray. So either way, now, I can’t win. I blame technology.