Reviews for Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet : A Novel

Booklist Reviews 2010 April #2
*Starred Review* Two-time Booker finalist Mitchell applies his wide-ranging talents to this innovative historical epic. Dejima, an artificial island created as a trading outpost in Nagasaki Harbor, proves fertile ground for exploring intercultural relations, trust and betrayal, racial and gender boundaries, the search for identity, and unexpected love in a changing world. In 1799, when the Netherlands held a trade monopoly with isolationist Japan, Jacob de Zoet, a clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company, is charged with uncovering fraud in his predecessors' ledgers. As Jacob doggedly pursues an honest course, he becomes romantically intrigued by Orito Aibagawa, a gifted, disfigured midwife granted special permission to study on Dejima. Mitchell incorporates diverse styles, and he expertly adapts tone and dialogue to reflect his situations. In the main plotline, incisive commentary on decisions and unforeseen consequences filters through a jaunty, slang-filled tale in which Japanese and Dutchmen arrange public and private deals. Interlinked subplots offer creepy gothic drama, seafaring adventure, and race-against-time suspense. Despite the audacious scope, the focus remains intimate; each fascinating character--interpreter, herbalist, magistrate, slave--has the opportunity to share his or her story. Everything is patched together seamlessly and interwoven with clever wordplay and enlightening historical details on feudal Japan. First-rate literary fiction and a rousing good yarn, too. Copyright 2010 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2010 July
David Mitchell explores Japan's hidden treasures

 A versatile and imaginative writer, David Mitchell has earned a devoted following for his virtuosic novels, two of which have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. With his sumptuous new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell eschews the postmodern razzle-dazzle of Cloud Atlas and Number9Dream for a more straightforward, albeit exquisitely detailed, historical romance about a Dutch outpost in Nagasaki harbor at the turn of the 19th century and Japan’s reluctant passage from isolation to trading partner of the West.

Dejima was an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki that contained the warehouses and employee lodgings of the Dutch East Indies Company. Joined to the mainland by a short bridge, the island was off-limits to most Japanese, and likewise the Dutch were, with few exceptions, not permitted to cross over into Nagasaki. The young clerk Jacob de Zoet arrives there in 1799 on a five-year contract, hoping to earn his fortune and return to Zeeland to marry his beloved.

The pious son of a pastor, Jacob is a diligent, intelligent and inquisitive clerk, more open than many of his compatriots to the cultural curiosity that is Japan. The only women permitted to breach the isolation of Dejima are common prostitutes and the courtesans that serve as the “wives” of the company officers, so Jacob is startled when he meets a young woman who is neither. Aibagawa Orito, an accomplished midwife and the facially scarred daughter of an eminent doctor, has obtained special dispensation to study under the island’s Dutch physician, Lucas Marinus.

Jacob falls in love with Orito from afar, but such a union faces seemingly in[Thu Aug 28 01:13:04 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. surmountable hurdles. He solicits the help of his translator, Ogawa Uzaemon, to intervene on his behalf, unaware that Uzaemon himself has long loved Orito and had hoped to marry her himself until his father declared the match unsuitable. Mere hopelessness turns to outright despair when Orito’s father dies and she is sold into a Shinto nunnery in payment for his debts. For the middle third of the novel, the story moves primarily to the Mount Shiranui Shrine, where Orito is unwillingly incarcerated as part of a sinister ritual involving the birth and dispatch of infants. A bit of Kurosawa-like samurai adventure surrounds Uzaemon’s attempt to rescue her from this virtual prison.

In the last part of the story, Jacob again takes center stage, as a British frigate arrives in the harbor and attempts to usurp the Dutch stranglehold on Japanese trade. Far removed from the power shift in Napoleonic Europe, the residents of Dejima have been unknowingly cut loose, and it will fall to the Dutch clerk—who until that moment has been professionally hampered by his honesty—to lead the rag-tag remnants of the now-defunct trading company to an honorable peace with both the English and the Japanese.

Mitchell paints an intricate and sensitive portrait of late feudal Japan, and he deftly conveys the backstories and inner lives of the Europeans. For all its impressive historical accuracy and well-played adventure, though, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is at heart a series of love stories. Mitchell deftly ties together his trifurcated narrative with a through line drawn from longing and unfulfilled love: Jacob’s love for his Dutch fianceÃÅe and for Orito, Orito’s for both Uzaemon and Jacob, Uzaemon’s for Orito, and in the final section, the British ship captain’s for his deceased wife.

The novel’s deceptively matter-of-fact ending has an undeniable poignancy, wrapped in a quiet bereavement for the inevitable pain of broken intimacies that comes with expanding horizons.

Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2011 March
This months' paperback releases

This month’s best paperback releases for reading groups feature notable authors and bestsellers.


In his fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell focuses his prodigious narrative powers on Japan in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A small Dutch trading settlement on an island in Nagasaki Harbor is where readers first meet Jacob, a representative of the Dutch East Indies Company. Jacob hopes to make his fortune and impress his fiancée back home, but instead he falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife. Theirs is a tenuous relationship, as Jacob isn’t allowed to visit the mainland where Orito lives. The pair encounter greater obstacles when Jacob is treated unjustly at work, and Orito’s conniving stepmother sends her away to a sinister nunnery. Their stories provide the foundation for Mitchell’s most ambitious work to date. He populates his tale with a cast of memorable characters that includes Uzaemon, an old flame of Orito’s, and various seamen, slaves and government officials. Author of the critically acclaimed Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, Mitchell, as always, pushes boundaries to create an epic and richly rewarding reading experience.


Taking a swing at America’s health-care system, Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, So Much for That, is a humorous and insightful examination of the patient-caregiver relationship. After selling his business for a million dollars, Shep Knacker plans to retire and travel the world with his wife, Glynis. But when she’s diagnosed with a malignant form of cancer, Shep finds himself serving as live-in nurse. Glynis makes for a terrible patient, but Shep endures her demands with the support of his best friend, Jackson, whose teenage daughter is also terminally ill. The two patients strike up an odd friendship as the men in their lives struggle to maintain some sort of status quo. Shep’s retirement fund dwindles quickly as he pays for chemotherapy and hospital stays, and Jackson is basically broke. Shriver depicts their plight in lively prose that’s meticulously crafted. She writes with delicacy and a unique understanding of the ways in which illness can transform lives and relationships. This is a funny, angry, compassionate novel that’s sure to resonate with readers.


In this vivid mix of science and biography, Rebecca Skloot tells the incredible true story of Henrietta Lacks, a victim of cervical cancer whose cells made possible some of medicine’s biggest discoveries. Lacks, a mother of five, came from a poor African-American family. When she died in 1951, doctors took samples of her tissues without having secured her consent. Her cells endured in the lab, allowing researchers to formulate a vaccine for polio and treatments for AIDS. Henrietta’s husband and children had no knowledge of her invaluable contribution until many years later. Skloot becomes involved with various surviving family members, who had passed the intervening years in poverty and bad health, helping them discover the truth about Henrietta. This poignant story about the invasiveness of medicine is also a deeply intimate look at one family’s efforts to claim its legacy. 

Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2010 May #1
Another Booker Prize nomination is likely to greet this ambitious and fascinating fifth novel--a full-dress historical, and then some--from the prodigally gifted British author (Black Swan Green, 2006, etc.).In yet another departure from the postmodern Pynchonian intricacy of his earlier fiction, this is the story of a devout young Dutch Calvinist (the eponymous Jacob) sent in 1799 to Japan, where the Dutch East India Company, aka the VOC, had opened trade routes more than two centuries earlier. But now the Company is threatened by the envious British Empire, which seeks to appropriate the Far East's rich commercial opportunities. Jacob's purpose is to acquire sufficient wealth and experience to earn the hand of his fiance Anna. But his mission is to serve as a ship's clerk while simultaneously investigating charges of corruption against the Company's powerful Chief Resident. When a scandal involving the seizure of the much-desired commodity of copper is manipulated to implicate Jacob, he is posted to the artificially constructed island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, becoming a de facto prisoner of an insular little world of rigorously patterned and controlled cultural--and commercial--rituals. Meanwhile, the story of Aibagawa Orita, a facially disfigured (hence unmarriageable) midwife authorized to study with the Company's doctor (the saturnine Marinus, a kind of Pangloss to Jacob's earnest Candide), punished for having aspired beyond her station, and the moving story of her planned escape from servitude and reunion with the beloved (Uzaeman) forbidden to marry her (which contains deft echoes of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Ondaatje's The English Patient), mocks, as it exalts, Jacob's concealed love for this extraordinary woman. The story climaxes as British forces challenge the Dutch hold on the East's riches, and Jacob's long ordeal hurtles toward its conclusion.It's as difficult to put this novel down as it is to overestimate Mitchell's virtually unparalleled mastery of dramatic construction, illuminating characterizations and insight into historical conflict and change. Comparisons to Tolstoy are inevitable, and right on the money. Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2010 February #2
Eager to earn the money he needs to marry, Jacob de Zoet heads to late 1700s Dejima, the Japanese empire's only port and outpost of the Dutch East Indies Company. But he gets his head turned by the island's wild side and a samurai's disfigured daughter. I love it that Mitchell can write a book like this and Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. With a seven-city tour. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Reviews 2010 April #2

It is a rare novel that's so captivating that the reader feels transported through time and fully immersed in an unfamiliar culture and place, and this is such a novel. Mitchell, a Man Booker Prize finalist for Cloud Atlas, returns with a story set at the turn of the 18th century around Dejima, an artificial island located in Nagasaki Bay and used as a trade outpost by the Dutch East Indies Company. A small group of mostly Dutch merchants lives on Dejima under the watchful eye of Japanese guards, government officials, and translators. Clerk Jacob de Zoet comes to Dejima for a period of five years to make his fortune and return to marry his wealthy fiance in Holland. An honest man, Jacob intends to put the company's financial records in order and root out corruption, but after meeting midwife Orito Aibagawa, he becomes entangled in events far more sinister than forged ledgers. VERDICT This painstakingly researched and original novel is hard to pin to any one genre, for it is a historical novel and cultural study with plenty of intrigue and mystery mixed in. It is intelligent and utterly readable at the same time. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/10.]--Shaunna Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2010 April #2

Mitchell's rightly been hailed as a virtuoso genius for his genre-bending, fiercely intelligent novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. Now he takes something of a busman's holiday with this majestic historical romance set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, where young, nave Jacob de Zoet arrives on the small manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor as part of a contingent of Dutch East Indies officials charged with cleaning up the trading station's entrenched culture of corruption. Though engaged to be married in the Netherlands, he quickly falls in hopeless love with Orito Aibagawa, a Dutch-trained Japanese midwife and promising student of Marinus, the station's resident physician. Their "courtship" is strained, as foreigners are prohibited from setting foot on the Japanese mainland, and the only relationships permitted between Japanese women and foreign men on Dejima are of the paid variety. Jacob has larger trouble, though; when he refuses to sign off on a bogus shipping manifest, his stint on Dejima is extended and he's demoted, stuck in the service of a vengeful fellow clerk. Meanwhile, Orito's father dies deeply in debt, and her stepmother sells her into service at a mountaintop shrine where her midwife skills are in high demand, she soon learns, because of the extraordinarily sinister rituals going on in the secretive shrine. This is where the slow-to-start plot kicks in, and Mitchell pours on the heat with a rescue attempt by Orito's first love, Uzaemon, who happens to be Jacob's translator and confidant. Mitchell's ventriloquism is as sharp as ever; he conjures men of Eastern and Western science as convincingly as he does the unscrubbed sailor rabble. Though there are more than a few spots of embarrassingly bad writing ("How scandalized Nagasaki shall be, thinks Uzaemon, if the truth is ever known"), Mitchell's talent still shines through, particularly in the novel's riveting final act, a pressure-cooker of tension, character work, and gorgeous set pieces. It's certainly no Cloud Atlas, but it is a dense and satisfying historical with literary brawn and stylistic panache. (July)

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