The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

This was my first go with David Mitchell, perhaps best known for Cloud Atlas.  Mitchell has written 5 books; 2 ended up shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  (He hasn’t won yet.  In time.  He’s quite the wordsmith.)  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) was longlisted for the prestigious prize, but it received quite a few other accolades, including winning the Commonwealth Writers’ prize, listed as one of Time’s best books of the year, as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.  It was also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.  Mitchell clearly has the umph it takes to be an excellent author, so why do I feel unsatisfied?

The answer isn’t all that simple.  I feel cheated.  That’s the best way to sum it up: cheated.  Mitchell created a world for me and characters that I felt vested in and then…  BOOM! War novel and my most beloved character only appearing in flashes of dreams, at graveside funerals, and years later as a flash of a face behind a scarf.  The title should have tipped me off.  This was the life of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch trader in Japan, not the beautifully scarred midwife Orito.  But Orito was the story and the story she should have been.

The novel opens with Orito delivering a baby.  It’s a descriptive scene, aided by a drawing of a fetus tucked in his mother’s womb, a cord wrapped around his neck, and only one arm reaching out from her womb.  Orito and the doctor discuss amputating the arm and pulling the baby they both assume dead from the concubine’s body, but end up using forceps to remove the lifeless body.  “A crib for a coffin, she thinks, and a swaddling sheet for a shroud.”  But all is not as it seems.  Orito drops the forceps, making a horrible clattering sound and an animal starts mewling.  ” Surely not, thinks the midwife, refusing to hope.  Surely not.  She snatches away the linen sheet just as the baby’s mouth opens.  He inhales once, twice, three times; his crinkled face crumples… and the shuddering newborn boiled-pink despot howls at life.” 

While this may seem out of place as the novel then launches into Jacob de Zoet and the adventures of Dutch trading in Dejima, it is quite a fitting place to start.  We see the object of de Zoet’s affection doing what she was gifted to do, a gift that brought her to Dejima to train under the Dutch doctor (the fact the baby survived when all hope was lost resulted in the privilege of study under the good Doctor), and a gift that ultimately resulted in her being essentially enslaved in a most horrible of places where women are bred like cattle and the children sacrificed unbeknowst to their mothers.  It is Orito’s life’s journey that propels de Zoet forward; most of his actions are with thoughts of her quick on his tongue.

I know next to nothing about the late 1700s – early 1800s era in Japan and cannot speak to the details.  Those that do know these things applaud Mitchell for his extensive research and attention to detail.  The setting for the novel, the backdrop of an English war, the tensions between East and West, man and woman, are all beautifully crafted and unfold without effort.

My dissatisfaction come from loving the character of Orito and the idea of monks impregnating women at a temple shrine with no one else in the world any the wiser.  I wanted more of that world, of her experiences there, her fear there, the drugs they fed her to break her mind and keep her numb, her near escape and return.  I’m disappointed because Mitchell is that good in crafting his characters.  It’s an unfair disappointment; Mitchell wrote an excellent novel and my criticism is undeserved, but is it not the mark of a good writer that the reader finds herself disheartened as the novel concludes?

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