I have read two books by David Mitchell and they were completely different. The first that I read, Cloud Atlas, was a stunningly unusual science fiction novel divided into sections, where each section was much farther in the future and was narrated by a character speaking in a patois of English that got a little harder to understand. Eventually, the sections all fitted together like a puzzle. It was fascinating. Others apparently thought so, too, because it was short-listed for six awards, including the Man Booker Prize.
But this review is for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a historical novel about late 18th Century Japan. Jacob is a clerk for the Dutch East Indies company who arrives in Japan in 1799. An honest, hard-working young man, he has signed on for a six-year term so that he can earn enough money to go home and marry his sweetheart, Anna.
Jacob finds that foreigners are only allowed to live on an island called Dejima in the Nagasaki Harbor and they cannot set foot on the Japanese mainland. Only certain Japanese, some interpreters and court officials, are allowed on Dejima. But the Japanese students of a Swedish physician are allowed, and one of them is the midwife Orito Aibagawa. Jacob is fascinated by her and ends up falling in love with her.
Jacob’s boss claims to intend to clean up the rampant corruption in the company, so he sets Jacob the task of reconciling the books from the previous years, which makes him some enemies. When Jacob refuses to sign a bogus manifest, he is left on the island with only his enemies as his boss departs.
Orito’s father dies, and her stepmother sells her off to a mountaintop shrine where sinister rites are being performed.
The story was full of interesting descriptions of the customs and laws of 18th Century Japan. And this reminds me that I need to pick up another David Mitchell book soon and read it.