three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-The Thousand Autumns.epsDavid Mitchell is the author of such acclaimed novels as the experimental Cloud Atlas (4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2004), which was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the autobiographical Black Swan Green (4.5 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2006). Early in his career, Mitchell spent eight years in Japan teaching English, and he puts his familiarity with the country and its culture to use in his fifth novel.

The Story: In 1799, naive young clerk Jacob de Zoet arrives on Dejima, a man-made island off the coast of Japan that functions as a notorious Dutch trading post and xenophobic Japan’s single, heavily guarded point of contact with the West. Both mesmerized and repulsed by this strange new world, Jacob intends to earn enough money to return to Rotterdam and marry his sweetheart. But an unexpected and forbidden passion for a Japanese midwife, Orito Aibagawa, threatens these plans. When Orito is sold to settle a family debt and is taken away by evil monks, he must decide how far he is willing to go for a woman he can never have.
Random House. 496 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781400065455

Denver Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet ... is original, breathtaking in its scope and imagination, and utterly different from its predecessors. ... Mitchell has succeeded in telling a multicultural story from decidedly disparate points of view--from within Jacob’s Dutch world, from within the Japanese culture and from within the larger view of trading history--and he does it in a way that makes perfect sense, with a simplicity that hides the underlying craft." Robin Vidimos

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is classic storytelling--rich in plot, action and character, vivid in its presentation of historical scene. For those who love story, romance, suspense, exotic locales, and the struggle of honest good over the most sinister and invidious of evils--this is your book." David Walton

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Mitchell] startles us again with a rich historical romance set in feudal Japan, an epic of sacrificial love, clashing civilizations and enemies who won’t rest until whole family lines have been snuffed out. ... Initially, the great cast of characters on the man-made island has just barely enough to do to keep the story moving forward, particularly one that rests on the ever-fascinating subject of accounting." Ron Charles

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The razor-sharp character voices that have driven much of Mitchell’s writing are less evident in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, much of their power consigned to occasional meditative comments, or to Mitchell’s liberal use of logical (and humorous) contradictions between a character’s italicized thoughts and what he or she ends up doing in the moment." Art Winslow

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"He’s meticulously reconstructed the lost world of Edo-era Japan, and in doing so he’s created his most conventional but most emotionally engaging novel yet. ... He manages to turn the love triangle of Orito, Jacob and [a Japanese translator] into a compelling through line that propels the plot over the longueurs in the first third of the novel--most notably, the lumpy sections of exposition in the opening chapters that feel labored and lapidary, as if he were self-consciously trying to make sure all his historical details and linguistic turns of phrase were correct." Michiko Kakutani

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Its pacing can be challenging, and its idiosyncrasies are many. But it offers innumerable rewards for the patient reader and confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive." Dave Eggers

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mitchell is a born storyteller, and no reader of Thousand Autumns will have trouble turning pages--or feel cheated by the three stories’ climactic final scenes, all of which are really good. But one can say much the same of any decent thriller, quickly consumed and then readily forgotten." Mike Fischer

Critical Summary

Despite some complaints of theatrical plot twists, unwieldy exposition, and weak characters, most critics enjoyed Mitchell’s latest novel, a fairly conventional page-turner that represents quite a detour from his earlier adventures in style and form. Once the action-packed plot hits its stride, Mitchell’s sizzling prose and keen eye for detail plunge readers into the fascinating world of feudal Japan. However, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet surpasses the typical historical thriller through its vivid, incisive explorations of the tensions between East and West--hegemony versus freedom; conformity versus independence; religion and superstition versus science--illuminating the best and worst of both cultures. Hailed as "a first-rate historical novel" (Cleveland Plain Dealer), this classic, old-fashioned adventure tale will appeal to readers of all inclinations.