The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
I had this book on hold at the library for ages and had been looking forward to reading it. It takes place in a reclusive Japan circa 1799. The Dutch are the only Europeans who trade with the Japanese, in the island port of Dejima (just outside of Nagasaki), imperial Japan's only entry and exit to the outside world. Jacob De Zoet is a Dutch clerk, who has five years to earn his fortune before returning to The Netherlands to marry his love, Anna. He forms a tenuous friendship with an interpreter, Uzaemon.
Then he meets Orito Aibagawa, a bright young midwife and daughter of a samurai, who has a disfiguring burn on her face. Jacob cannot get Orito out of his mind. Any hope of a relationship between them, though, is doomed. Soon Orito's fortunes change for the worse and she ends up being sold to a Buddhist convent with shocking secret habits. It turns out that Uzaemon was also in love with Orito, but he was forced to marry another woman. Soon Uzaemon plots a rescue attempt.
This novel contains much, much more than this basic plot, but these were the most compelling, multidimensional characters and the most interesting part of the book. As you'll see if you read through the reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, many readers find the first and third parts of the book to be deadly boring. The middle of the book, with the attempted rescue of Orito off the mountain, was the most compelling. Then she vanished off the pages and it got back to Dutch trading.
Clearly, Mitchell meticulously researched this novel. But I found the vast number of characters and subplots, not to mention the lack of depth of so many of the characters, to be tiresome. The page after page about Dutch trading and backstabbing got to be painful, and at the end, I found myself scanning the pages. As one Amazon reviewer wrote, "A thousand autumns is nine hundred ninety nine too long."
Nearly all of the characters were evil, untrustworthy, or unethical, or simply lazy and only out for themselves. Even though Jacob De Zoet did feature throughout the novel, I never felt that I really understood him. I didn't care what happened to most of the characters. Those that I did care about (the mountain herbalist, for example) just disappeared.
I know this book is packed with metaphor and symbolism, and perhaps Mitchell's brilliance is just beyond me. I've never read his other books, so I don't have any mode of comparison.
Historical fiction set in Japan is usually my cup of tea. But after those months of waiting, I was disappointed in most of this book. I was relieved to be done with it, and that's not a good sign!