Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Now I don't remember why I downloaded The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to my Kindle. I wasn't familiar with the author, David Mitchell.

I guess I saw it recommended somewhere and thought it looked like an interesting historical novel about 19th century Japan in the era when only a single Dutch trading outpost was allowed offshore and the island nation otherwise isolated itself from Western influences. I don't know much about this history and did learn something about it in reading the book.

The novel started out that way and initially I thought the plot was going to be about how the Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet got caught with a forbidden Psalter in his belongings and was captured by the Japanese as punishment. You know--a thousand autumns in the Japanese prison or something. But no, that's not where the author was going at all.

The plot is quite slow moving and filled with imaginative interludes which depict the nightmares, fantasies and premonitions of the major characters. I'm not really sure why I kept reading but suddenly in the middle of the book the story took an abrupt turn.

Jacob de Zoet's growing attraction to a disfiguered young Japanese girl who is training as a midwife is thwarted when she is suddenly whisked away to a secluded convent in the mountains in payment for her late father's debts. De Zoet and a young Japanese man who is also in love with her discover evidence that this convent is the site of sinister and perverted practices run by a very powerful Japanese official.

The uncovering of this criminal enterprise and the attempt to rescue the young woman merge with a battle between a British frigate which seeks to seize a piece of the Japanese trade from the Dutch in the denouement of the novel. I won't give away the resolution of the novel, but expect themes of treachery, poison, self-sacrifice and eternal love to come together in the end.

Despite the slow start to the novel, I found it a very satisfying-- if lengthy (over 400 pages)--read. The story was compelling and the twists and turns of the plot were not easy to anticipate once it got rolling. Jacob de Zoet is a memorable character.

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