The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I frequently hear from readers, and O. Ray Pardo is someone who more or less regularly emails me about the books he’s enjoyed. He’s  an avid reader and friend of the library who lives in Manchester, WA.

Here’s what he has to say about David Mitchell’s newest novel: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Guest Blog by O. Ray Pardo

Come back to the Japan at the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries, as the author introduces us to a naive young Dutchman, Jacob de Zoet, and then peels back the onion of his storyline.  As the story winds and then rushes to conclusion we meet many different characters, with their individual points of view set in the polyhedron of prejudice, misunderstanding, and geography.  This is a story of honor, obligation, isolation, trust, treachery and love.   As Jacob discovers the complexity of Japanese culture, and the richness (and darkness) in the lives of those around him, he finds strength and confidence in his upbringing and in his ability to play the game of life. (I especially applaud the bravery of including engravings—so easy in our digital age, but so little used.)

The book is breath-taking in the beauty of its language and printing (do not wait for the paperback). 

* * *

Now (this is Nancy again) I began this book with great hopes. I loved Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, but have had great difficulty in getting into the thick of  Jacob de Zoet. Reading Ray’s comments makes me eager to get back to it and try again.  It’s so clear to me that so much of what we like or don’t enjoy at any particular time is dependent on our moods.  It could have been—it probably was— that I was looking for something that was a bit faster moving.  Or at least something different than what Mitchell was giving me.

 Ray also asked me for suggestions of what to read next, and—naturally—I changed continents and centuries by suggesting the two historical series by Dorothy Dunnett.  Anyone have any other suggestions?

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9 responses to “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

  1. Nancy pearl

    I think that the river analogy is a good one. Thanks for sharing it. Nancy

  2. jenny

    I listened to Jacob de Zoet over the summer for my monthly pick from Audible. I find that the audio version sometimes helps slower books hold my attention longer than physical reading, because I can distract enough of myself with dishes or folding laundry and still listen. I think I’ve probably been able to enjoy more books this way. This book felt like a river to me–meandering at first, and although it felt very slow I tried to simply relax and let it take its time. Then all of a sudden it turned into white water rapids–then a swiftly moving creek. I found the shift to be pretty jarring, but not unwelcome after the slowness.

  3. I’m afraid that sometimes one might not enjoy a book — or, rather, *I* might not enjoy a book — as much as I should because I simply don’t trust the author to be telling a good story. That was my problem with Thousand Autumns — it’s been a number of years since I read a conventional historical novel, but I could see so many conventional tropes of the historical novel slowly revealing themselves in the first section of the book

    In the end, I really liked the character of Jacob de Zoet, although I think I held back from committing myself to him out of that (again, mistaken) mistrust in the author. It is satisfying to see a character trying to chart and steer a moral course in a corrupt world, even if all does not go well as a result.

    This book has many more layers than were apparent to me as I was reading it (who are the worst bad guys, for example?) — it is a rich book, with sometimes amazing prose and a sense that the author has, for the most part, a clear view of the kind of world he wants to describe — one which makes sense to me and gives me cause for thought.

    I read a review (on Goodreads) of the book where the reviewer had the opposite experience. She loves the “Westerner collides with Japan” historical sub-genre and enjoyed the beginning and found the shift from her expectations not to her liking.
    It’s these connections, expectations, and variations in taste and experience that sometimes make reading such an un-shared experience.
    In this book, I loved the moment on page 168 when Jacob reads (from his forbidden Psalms) the Thirty-seventh Psalm: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.” … “For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good;”… This was a stunningly perfect personal connection for me in the novel — something I’d not expect someone else to share, or even to understand if I tried to explain.

  4. I recently finished this wonderful book – 1000 Autumns – and also Cloud Atlas, plus the bonus of hearing David Mitchell speak in Vancouver at the Int’l Writers Festival. The hyperbole is all true – the man’s a genius, and I hate that word! This isn’t Cloud Atlas – like each part of Cloud Atlas, this is entirely new and different. It is as though Mitchell were a multiple personality, each one a brilliant but very different writer. I love the power of the historical novel to pull us deeply into a very different time and place, and Mitchell succeeds richly.

  5. Toni Ciardullo

    the best book I read recently is Once A Runner. I enjoyed it so much and almost made me want to run after twenty years. It has been called the best book about running. Filled with so many interesting characters, it is a delight.

  6. Mary Brogan-Sizemore

    This is the first negative I’ve heard about “1000 Autumns,” so I’m glad that Nancy intends to try again, though under the theory of “so many books….” there are plenty of other choices awaiting the constant reader. I have made my last effort on the exalted Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose,” beloved by many I respect, but, see above. I gave far more pages than those computed in Nancy’s dictum of 100 minus age in years for how many pages one “owes” a new book before giving up. Material interesting enough, but the style seemed flacid. What am I missing?
    David Mitchell’s latest might be worth a second glance, Nancy. Maybe if you go in a different direction, or dimension. Forget the story, enjoy Mitchell’s propulsive language – hang on for the linguistic ride – so brilliant.

    I just finished “Don Quixote.” What a wonderful experience. What a wild and crazy metafictional rollercoaster that was! I hadn’t realized that Cervantes and Shakespeare died around the same time! Shakespeare read a translation of “DQ” around the time he was writing “Lear.” You can see shared material for the Bard’s comedies in the interpolated romances in the “first” modern novel. For a palate cleanser, I reread Martin Gruber’s “Tropic of Night.” Highly intelligent anthropological thriller. Thanks to Nancy for reminding me of Gruber recently

  7. Kay

    I found the first part of Thousand Autumns hard going also, but once you move into the perspective of the Japanese interpreter (don’t have my book and can’t be more specific), the book becomes a bit of a page turner. Like Cloud Atlas, this book incorporates different genres, but here they all are part of one narrative, not different ones. Persevere. You will find it worth while.

    And as for Dorothy Dunnett, if you haven’t read her, DO IT. She has no equal for sheer enjoyment, and totally engrossing storytelling. She’s not easy reading though. Start with the Lymond series, not the Niccolo ones, and be warned that Game of Kings is tough for about 100 pages. You won’t know what’s going on. But after that, it’s complete joy.

  8. I also recently finished Thousand Autumns and liked it very much (review here -http://bookdiary2010.blogspot.com/2010/10/thousand-autumns-of-jacob-de-zoet.html).
    I followed it with Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter a novel/mystery that immerses you in a time, place and people – the deep south, the 1980s and the black and white populations of a rural community. Not quite as foreign as Thousand Autumns but exotic as well.

    • Nancy Pearl

      I loved Crooked Letter too and keep meaning to blog about it. Now I’m reading the Booker Prize winner and uncomfortably enjoying it, all the while wondering whether enjoy is the right verb.

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