The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

My first experience with David Mitchell was in my entry level creative writing class.  The class was asked to read the first chapter of Black Swan Green.  I was impressed with the young narrator.  Mitchell walked the tightrope of utilizing a child narrator without sacrificing his prose.  He never wobbled. When I picked up The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, I was expecting a similar style novel, a first person account scattered with humor and irony.  Within the first chapter I realized that Mitchell was the chameleon of the modern novel.  He left no fingerprint with his words, no identifying tell by which I could recognize him.  His style was vastly different from that of Black Swan Green: third person narrator vs. first person child narrator, late eighteenth century vs. now, mysticism vs. realism.  Luckily for Mitchell, both of his personas are equally talented.

The novel brings the reader toDejima,Japanwhere the Dutch East India Company is negotiating trade.  A lowly clerk Jacob De Zoet is determined to keep his head down for the next four years so he can go back toHollandand marry his sweetheart Anna.  However, Jacob finds himself falling in love with a Japanese midwife, Orito who is disfigured by a burn on her face. Orito is captured by Enomoto and forced to become a nun in a shrine with dark secrets.  Jacob must attempt uphold his country’s position inJapan, and save his lost love.

The strength of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet rest in its characters: the pious, yet human clerk, Jacob, the selfless interpreter, Ogawa, the burned yet brilliant midwife, Orito, and the evil abbot, Enomoto.  While Jacob, Ogawa, and Orito summon empathy and understanding from the reader, Mitchells biggest success was Enomoto.  His countless spies and connections allow him to be one step ahead at all times, producing an anxiety in the reader that makes them wish to shout out to whoever he is dealing with “RUN!”

Mitchell also manages to write a bi-cultural or even tri-cultural novel which allows the reader to feel equal sympathy and understanding for each.  Though Jacob is the main character, and a likable one at that, equal compassion is felt for the Englishman firing cannonballs at him.  The Japanese, Dutch, and English cultures, though all are at odds in one was or another are shown equal favor by the author, an extraordinary feat.

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