Hello everybody! as Dr. Nick would say. Jan here, Riv's fiancé. Guess this is my fifteen minutes of fame on her blog by getting to write this guest review on The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. First of all thanks to Riv and her blog for inspiring me to read more. I have to add that it's really easy too to start a book these days thanks to the bookshelves being stuffed with great books.
I've always liked historical fiction so when I saw that Mitchell had written one I just tingled with excitement. Many have probably read Cloud Atlas by him, which I thought was an excellent book and Mitchell really hooked me with his original and brilliant writing style and use of words. On the downside, his style might need getting used to and his books can be a bit daunting at first, as they are not light reads. I felt this about Cloud Atlas and I had the same feeling while reading de Zoet, meaning the start was a bit heavy and needed plenty of focus.
Mitchell's books are best enjoyed in a quiet and relaxing environment so you can concentrate on the prose and the small details. Like Cloud Atlas, it is a book that endures many re-reads. The writing is both vivid and imaginative.
"Winter Woods are creaking, knitted and knotted. Dead leaves lie in deep drifts. Needle tips of birdsong stich and thread the thicket's many layers." (p. 326)
Again, Mitchell makes use of many characters to tell the story and he has a knack of breathing life into each of them, making them feel real and creating a connection to them from the start. This is a book about different angles, cultures and people after all. It really helps to understand the events if you have some grasp of Japanese culture and early 19th century history, for example the East India Company and imperialist England.
Like in a good book, the antagonists and protagonists are not black and white, but rather grey instead. Everyone has their goals and dreams (and their demons) and there is a lot of personal conflict taking place within the characters. Through these characters Mitchell weaves a story in early 19th century Japan that is in a way connected like the characters in Cloud Atlas. Mitchell likes to make us feel like we are within the minds of the characters; that we see and focus what's going on around us and have thoughts about them.
Mitchell also deliberately creates subtle links between his books, for example I spotted a few 'Easter eggs' which reference to Cloud Atlas. In an interview, I remember Mitchell remarking that his books can be seen as a sort of a meta-universe. Much like in the form of certain fantasy worlds, I thought. I'm sure to keep my eyes open for more of this once I get to his other books.
The book shows that Mitchell put a lot of effort into studying the history because it actually feels you are there, in early 19th century Japan, witnessing the events as an observer. Back in the interview he said one sentence could take up half a day to write just because he had to check the facts on how something was done in those days. Mitchell, much to my delight, uses real historical events as a base and builds upon them or fills in the gaps. However, the book isn't just historical fiction, but rather spans over a multitude of themes such as religion, mystery, naval warfare and horror. It's one of those books that in the last pages unravel the complex threads in a gripping and touching way and leaves you thinking about the book for a good while. Highly recommended.
Thanks a lot for this lovely review! I also loved Cloud Atlas, and can't wait to get lost in Mitchell's complex worlds again.