The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetIn his best known novels (such as Cloud Atlas), David Mitchell uses many literary techniques—multiple points of view and storylines, radically shifting locations and time periods. But in his fifth and most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell forgoes these to write a straight forward, third-person historical novel which takes place in Japan in the year 1799. At this time, the Japanese had almost entirely severed contacts with the West, having recently banished, persecuted, and executed Catholic missionaries and converts. The only Europeans allowed into Japan are the Dutch—and they are restricted to a small strip of land, Dejima, in the port city Hiroshima.

The book focuses on the experiences of young Jacob de Zoet, who has joined the Dutch East India Company to make the fortune that will allow him to return to Holland and marry his fiancé, Anna, a plan at odds with his scrupulous honesty as bookkeeper. While in Hiroshima, de Zoet encounters and falls in love with Orita Abigawa, a young Japanese woman learning (against both the folk superstitions and gender roles of her culture) the basics of Western medicine from Dr. Marinus, a Dutch physician and representative of 18th Century Enlightenment values. Because of her medical education, Abigawa is then forced into an horrific religious cult, led by the evil Enomoto.

Will Abigawa be rescued from the clutches of Enomoto and his henchmen? Will Jacob earn his fortune and return to Anna? Will he overcome Japan’s racial code and marry Abigawa?  Will Jacob and Dr. Marinus survive bombardment from an English warship? And what will happen to the escaped monkey named William Pitt?

These questions may suggest that Mitchell’s novel is a conventional suspense thriller. While suspenseful, however, the novel transcends its potboiler qualities through Mitchell’s many thematic concerns: corporate and capitalistic exploitation, the struggle between superstition and science, religious fundamentalism, and the struggle between Eastern and Western culture.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet can be read as a straight-forward adventure tale, a historical romance, and also an examination of the seeds of our own age as they began to germinate in one small place two centuries ago.

Find and reserve this book in the library.


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