Review: ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell

url9I adored ‘Cloud Atlas’ and loved ‘Ghostwritten’, so ‘Jacob de Zoet’ was my third trip into David Mitchell territory, and I was full of high hopes.

Initially, my hopes were a little deflated: there’s a LOT of information and technicalities get your head around in the first part, making it a little difficult to get a reading rhythm going. It did feel a little stilted and there were a few times I had to put this down in order to gather my poor reeling head.

However…

Perseverance pays off! With the shock betrayal of Jacob’s principle by Voerstenbosch and Van Cleef, and Aibagawa Orito’s evident kidnap, everything kicked up a gear in the final moments of Part One, and left you hungry for more.

Orito’s story was my absolute favourite throughout; initially because she was a woman trying to live in a man’s world (thanks to the open-mindedness of the indomitable Dr Marinus), but then because she was a fighter with feeling. The moment where she had escape within her clutches and turned back for the benefit of others was absolutely heartbreaking, but equally wonderful in showing a bravery beyond just getting out and being safe.

Talking of which, the story of Mount Shiranui was horrifically captivating: the balance between it being perceived as a haven but actually being a temple of death and sacrifice was elegantly crafted and haunting in its composure. Watching Ogawa Uzaemon flail against the invincibility of this cult of terror was plot perfection; hopelessness and inevitability at this point invades even the strongest believer in good triumphing over evil, and as such intensifies the emotional reaction against Lord Enomoto and his evil creeds.

I’ll admit the introduction of the British naval fleet in Dejima was, although initially an interesting twist, something that soon lost its interest. Captain Penhaligon (and his interminable gout!) was a fascinating character nonetheless, and I’ve never witnessed such a subtle blend of grief manifesting itself in every action as I had within his plot unfolding. The only thing that stuck in my gullet here was the survival of Daniel Snitker, former Dejima Dutchman trader and traitor to the Dutch empire in Japan; how on earth did he get from chains to the British empire’s fleet, and in doing so find not only refuge but a refuge with a fluent Dutch translator to enact his revenge? A lot of convenience, but forgivable for the plot it allowed to unfold.

For this leads to one of my favourite single moments in the book:  Jacob de Zoet (not forgetting Marinus and William Pitt the monkey) in a solo stance against the British invaders to Dejima, standing alone where all else had fled or lost everything. It was touching and it was real; both men wetting themselves, for example, showed heroism doesn’t have to look pretty to be amazing.

And the ending: David Mitchell knows how to write an ending that stays with you. Yes, Jacob de Zoet’s autumns are not what he thought, and never what he planned, but they are everything that makes us human and wonderful. So yet again, another David Mitchell book that thrills, captivates, confuses in places but causes wonder all over. Remember, persevere with ‘Jacob de Zoet’ and it will pay off; maybe not in copper shares or Dutch profits, but in pure pleasure alone.

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