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Jacob De Zoet has just landed in Dejima, Japan, in 1799. Dejima, a port of Nagasaki, was at this time the only place you would find a foreigner in Japan, with the rest of the country fenced off and impossible to get to alive. But Dejima housed a company of Dutch traders, isolated from the rest of Japan and under constant scrutiny. Although this book is fiction this was an actual place in Japan, which was a very closed country for a very long time and Dejima was a place were the Dutch lived for years at a time and was therefore, I assume, quite a strange mixed Japanese/Dutch community where people had little freedom, if any, to do what they wanted.
Jacobs arrival in Dejima shows his amazement with this country, language and people which few people had any dealings with at this time. He also has to confront the control the Japanese had on the Dutch at this time, as they were not expected to try and learn the language and any Christian artefact was banned from the island as the Japanese worried that the Dutch may try to 'corrupt' their people. There are few Dutch on the island and with these few men, all working for the same trading company and a few Japanese interpreters and slaves. Confronted with the politics of these few men and the bizarreness of Japan in this time proves troublesome for Jacob until he befriends the Dutch doctor who has been granted a rare opportunity to teach a select few Japanese medicine. In this way he meets Miss Aibagawa, who although at first he mistakes her for a prostitute or geisha from nearby Nagasaki, is in fact a fellow medicine student. Although he is already promised to a girl back home in Holland Jacob immediately becomes enraptured by Miss Aibagawa and it soon gets to the point when he can do nothing but think of her. This leads for his life to take a very interesting turn, especially as the company he works for has gone bankrupt and he is stuck in Japan for the unforeseeable future.
This is David Mitchells' fifth book and really quite different from his others. For a start it follows an actually story, although not written following one event after another it does have the conventional beginning, middle and end which some of his others don't have. However, although starting with the story of Jacob de Zoet it does break off from him about a third of the way through, and then follows an interpreter for about another third, before going off to follow a few different characters towards the end. As Dejima, although not populated by many people, had a diverse population, I think that this gives the reader a taste of how life was for all these different people whilst holding the story together around Jacob. However, it is a bit of a shock when it breaks off from a character, I'd really gotten used to Jacob and really wanted to know what would happen to him in the end when the book started to be about someone else, so it was kind of hard to re-get-into.
Jacob is quite an odd character, he's pretty likeable but to be honest, a bit bland. I read the book a few weeks ago when it first came out and thinking back, I can't remember too much about him. Saying that, as I said, I did really want to find out what would happen with him in the end. I think it's nice that he's an ordinary man thrown into extreme circumstances, it certainly makes the unusualness of Japan more apparent and brings out the personalities of the lesser characters.
Miss Aibagawa is an unusual love interest for Jacob and a very strong female character, which certainly would have been unusual for women in Japan at this time. Again, I think this helps to bring out how suppressed the Japanese were at this time, as the other women in the book are rather meek, or prostitutes. The rest of the characters are generally other workers with the trading company, interpreters, the doctor and a couple of men who run Nagasaki. There are a couple of interesting characters there, I especially like the doctor, but not many people appear a terribly large amount. All in all I think the characters all work well with each other, although none of them really stand out as being especially rememberable or special.
Although this book differs from David Mitchells other book it does still have a lot of 'Mitchellness' to it. It doesn't run smoothly from beginning to end and has some quite unusual characters. It kind of reminds me of The Journal of Adam Ewing from Cloud Atlas, although of course this isn't just a short story, it has much more to it. David Mitchell has clearly done a lot of research for this book, although he has lived in Japan so would of course have some pre-existing knowledge of the country and its people, he obviously didn't live there in the early 1800s. The book is very accurate, and although a work of fiction you do learn a lot about what Japan was like as a closed country at this time and how hard it was for other countries to work with them. It also pays attention to specific customs and is quite detailed about the hierarchy of the classes in Japan and the customs pertaining to this. I do find this period in Japanese history interesting, although if you're not particularly interested in it I don't think that would matter, this is a great story regardless. One thing that did annoy me was any Japanese words used were always in italics, like the honorific 'san', used the same as we would use Mr and Mrs, this is used often and so when I read it, it seems like it ought to be emphasised, which it shouldn't.
David Mitchells books are overly easy to read, but even if you've read one of his others and disliked it, you may still like this as it is quite different to the others. It's a great story set in a very unusual place at an unusual time in its history. I got very wrapped up in the story and couldn't put it down even though I probably should have when it got to 3am. I would recommend this if you want an interesting and quite different read, any fans of David Mitchell will be happy with this, I can't wait until I'm able to pre-order his next book.
This review is for the fiction title, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" by David Mitchell, the author's fifth book.
The plot is based around the island of Dejima, and the story is based around a Dutch employee of the East India Company, Jacob De Zoet. The story is set at the very end of the eighteenth century and through into the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The fascinating part about the island of Dejima is that although it is situated in Japan, it is a concession which was given to the Netherlands, so there are the mix of Japanese and Dutch cultures, with traders visiting from around the world.
De Zoet is on the island through pressure from his family, and he knows that his posting will last for at least five years. He hopes that he can develop his career enough to provide lasting wealth for his wife in the Netherlands, for whom he looks forward to returning.
When De Zoet gets to the island though, he is fascinated by the people and sites. He becomes especially interested in a Japanese mid-wife and daughter of a samurai, who he tries to understand and get to know.
Which is really the basis of this book, which slowly lets you get to know the places and people of the island, its history and how it develops. The story is beautifully crafted, well written and superbly presented, with an atmosphere which is really credible and interesting.
I won't give the plot away too much, which would be easy to do, but the book contains so much more than the story of just one man. Indeed, it's probably best that you try to avoid finding out much about the plot in advance, as the book unfolds much better in my view if you are unaware of how the story progresses.
Without giving too much away though, there are large numbers of characters who appear in the book, and I have to confess that I really struggled to keep up on some occasions with what was going on.
If you're after a simple read, then this likely isn't the book for you. With the large number of characters is also a large number of plots which link around into each other, in what is quite a complex way. It would be unfair to say that this means the book is badly written or over-complex, but it does require a lot of thought and concentration, or at least, it did for me.
The book retails for 18.99 pounds, but is currently available new on Amazon for 9.41 pounds including postage. As at the time of writing the book has just been published, there are no cheaper second hand copies available, but you might want to look on eBay or Amazon to see if you can pick a cheaper copy up.
The book's ISBN is 9780340921562, is 480 pages long and was published by Sceptre in May 2010. The book has its own web-site as well, although it specifically relates to the US release of the book, which is published in mid 2010.
In summary, this is a superb book, a fascinating look at early nineteenth century history, a good read and brilliantly written in terms of characters and plots. However, it is a complex book, so sit down and be prepared to concentrate as you read, but if you are interested in historical fiction, it's worth the effort!