In the hands of a lesser writer, the meticulously researched, exceptionally complex story of this novel would have probably spiraled out of control. Such is not the case in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet where David Mitchell masterfully crafts an intricate look at life in a remote Japanese "exit" island (Dejima) at the turn of the 19th century. As a part of the Dutch East Indian Trading Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC), de Zoet arrives on Dejima with an honest heart and an even more moral eye. He has one job set out for him: to meticulously revise the company's records to ensure they are correct and therefore stop the corruption. This job, however, proves difficult when it's discovered that just about every rank and file of the men serving the VOC on Dejima, and even those tasked to clean up the corruption, are themselves corrupt.
If de Zoet is the moral heart of the book, then the soul of this novel is absolutely Orito Aibagawa, a midwife, who despite terrible odds, furthers her career despite both gender and class discrimination. De Zoet falls easily in love with Orito but his feelings are secondary to what she must endure when she's taken captive by an evil Abbot and forced into servitude alongside numerous other women. The abuse of the women (each month a few women are chosen to receive the "gifts" of the monks [pregnancy] and then told absolute lies about what happens to their newborn children when they are immediately taken away post-birth) coupled with the maniacal, strange beliefs of the Abbot remain a fascinating thread within the novel.
There are so many characters in this novel that to recount what happens to all of them, or to truly give justice to Mitchell's mammoth undertaking (the attention to historical detail; the fascinating intersection of the two different cultures; the actual events that propel the narrative forward), would be impossible in a blog review. What I would like to say, though, is that the historical detail never gets in the way of the story -- it doesn't insert itself like an awkward metaphor. Instead, it provides a rich, robust backdrop to a time and place that isn't exploitative. It felt very timely, given the recent, tragic, and devastating events unfolding in Japan, to be reading a book that I felt was extremely respectful of both its culture and heritage. Perhaps I'm wrong, but with nothing to compare it to, I'm going to go with my gut instinct and commend Mitchell for allowing this reader into a world she had never had any idea even existed.
I kept imagining writing rich and robust essays about this book while reading -- applying all kinds of post-colonial analysis to both Mitchell's narrative structure (fairly straightforward but by placing "Jacob de Zoet" in the title one would assume he's the "main" character so it's interesting to note how little of the book actually revolves around him) and to the failed attack by the British that propels the novel to its conclusion. All in all, it's a deep, meaty novel that deserves all of the accolades (Commonweath Writer's Prize regional win, Booker nom, tonnes of "best of" lists from last year). It was completely worth the $1.80 that I had to pay in late fees upon returning it to the library this afternoon.
READING CHALLENGES: Because Mitchell is British, I can't count this towards Around the World in 52 Books. Sometimes, I think I should revise the challenge to include the actual settings of the novels instead of just the nationality of the authors but I've done it this way for so long that I don't want to change it up now just to include more books. And I've absolutely abandoned my shelves for the moment. I have way too many library books and publishers titles to get through over the next few weeks. It's actually a relief because I was getting bored, bored, bored of my shelves -- despite how very dedicated I am to getting through as many of the books as possible this year. Right now I'm halfway through Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed and I have a lot to say about it...plus a little to rant about EPL & its movie adaptation.