Historical Fiction – David Mitchell- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

This takes place at the end of 18th century in Nagasaki in Dejima, a Dutch trading post in the final days of the Dutch Empire. Jacob de Zoek is a clerk trying to make his fortune in Japan in order for him to marry the woman he loves back in Holland. However he meets Orito a Japanese midwife and falls in love with her but cultural prohibitions make the relationship taboo.   At this time it was illegal to be a Christian and foreigners were unable to take Japanese out of the country.

The book is divided into three main parts:

Jacob at Dejima

Orito in the Mount Shiranui Shrine

Conflict between the British navy and the Dutch, and their attempt to take over the trading post.

Whilst reading the book jacket I was impressed by its  amazing reviews such as it being a ‘masterpiece’ or ‘my book of the year’, eg http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/09/thousand-autumns-jacob-zoet-mitchell.  Therefore I was very excited as I love Mitchell’s books (except for number9dream) and historical novels, but I was very disappointed with this. I just couldn’t get into it for the first 200 or so pages, however the second part in the shrine is more interesting and the third part seems more like the old Mitchell and it is much more humorous.  He has also obviously done a lot of research on Japanese culture in the 18th century and that is very interesting, especially the concept of honour suicides but sometimes it does fall into the trap of showing off the research at the expense of the story.

There is a timeline of the real historical  events at back  of the book but it is a shame it wasnt at the front as it gives some context and it was sometimes hard to follow exactly what was going on.   Mitchell has written an article on historical fiction which is good on the history of historical fiction – even referring to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as a piece of historical fiction.  He argues historical novels were previously linked with blue rinses and how this type of fiction can  illuminate our world today – although I would debate these points.  Lots of authors have argued that in fact historical fiction can just be entertainment in its own right and doesn’t have to have a message.  I heard an interesting podcast on this on Radio 4’s Open Book although was  completed wound up by Mariella Frostrup’s comment that history teaching is undergoing a crisis – a view I would argue is only held by nationalist Tory politicians.

Open Book Historical Fiction

But anyway overall  it was unfortunately largely unenjoyable and disappointing – I am hoping one of my favourite authors goes back to form.  Everyone else loves it, why don’t I?



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3 responses to “Historical Fiction – David Mitchell- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

  1. Pingback: Dodgy historical novels – World Without End – Ken Follett | Rotten Books

  2. Michèle Moolchan

    You’re not the only one, Kerry. I enjoyed parts of it but just wasn’t gripped. In fact, I didn’t even bother to finish it – something I very, very rarely do.

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