The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
By David Mitchell
First Published: 2010
Review © 2013 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literature, Modern Fiction
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a fabulous novel from David Mitchell that manages the almost impossible task of meeting or exceeding the expectations generated from his previous novels. It’s a beautifully crafted historical novel that takes place 200 years ago in a far flung outpost of the Dutch East India Company which served at the time as the only contact point between the west and Japan. When a young clerk from the Netherlands arrives, he is tasked with going through records to document the corruption that has been bleeding the company’s profits. With a job like this, the clerk finds it’s as difficult to find friends among his own countrymen as it to find friends among the Japanese. However, finding enemies proves to be much easier.
The time and setting of the events in this novel highlight the contrasts between the West and Japan at a time when Japan was a completely closed society to the outside world with the only porthole being the single trading post allowed by Japan with exclusive trading rights given to the Dutch East India Company. Japan at the time was an extremely rigid society. Those in power ruled with absolute authority and any hint of defiance could result in death or worse. Japan maintained strict isolationist policies because the leaders were highly concerned about the people being corrupted by western ideas and religion.
All the men who labor in the far outposts of the East India Company make incredible sacrifices for their jobs as they undergo tremendous hardships to make the long sea voyages and are isolated from their country and family for years at a time. What draws them to this life is the potential for making their fortune from the riches of the Far East. No wonder then that they take every opportunity to turn a profit, be it by legal or illegal means.
Jacob de Zoet is the young clerk about whom most of the novel revolves around. He’s a naïve young man who is used to following the straight and narrow and is surprised by how much corruption he finds. Jacob is dedicated to a fiancé that is waiting for him so he avoids the prostitutes the Japanese are willing to provide. However, he eventually finds himself drawn to the daughter of a samurai doctor. As he finds himself pursuing a forbidden love, he finds the consequences are more than he bargained for.
Mitchell does an amazing job of recreating the end of the 18th century. He apparently did a tremendous amount of research and it pays off with descriptions that envelope the reader in a completely authentic world that is full of rich details. In addition, the characters are great. They all have their good points and faults and they all seem to be a product of their time. When Jacob makes an enemy of one of the most powerful Japanese lords, the story tension really picks up. The Japanese lord becomes one of the best villains I’ve encountered as he is mysterious, extremely intelligent, and completely ruthless.
This novel thrives upon conflict and temptation. There are constant temptations to break the innumerable rules, conflicts between individuals within the Dutch trading company, conflicts with other countries who want a piece of the trading pie, conflicts between the traders and the Japanese, and conflicts among different Japanese factions. Jacob manages to get in the middle of just about all these conflicts which makes for many tense scenes and adventures. In addition, Jacob encounters tales of horrifying arcane practices taking place in a remote mountain shrine that are more shocking that anything he has previously imagined.
I can’t recommend The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet highly enough for those looking for a novel with lots of substance. It has terrific characters, incredible historical detail, exciting conflicts, and deep mysteries. And to top it all off, it has a terrific climax. Discerning readers need to put The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at the top of their reading list.