The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell's fifth novel is big on ideas, but struggles to manage them all.

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Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

A historical novel set in 1799 at the Dutch trading outpost of Dejima (then-isolationist Japan’s sole conduit to the West), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet opens with a grisly birth scene complete with a reproduction of a graphic 18th-century medical engraving. It’s an unforgettable introduction to David Mitchell’s fifth novel, but it’s not the way we meet the title character. He arrives in the next chapter, a young clerk come to the East to make his fortune. The pious, intellectually curious de Zoet bumps up against institutional corruption, geopolitics and the rigidness of Japanese society in his claustrophobic new home.

Though this novel is a departure from the author’s previous books—it’s his first written entirely in the third person (save one brief chapter, disorienting in its inclusion)—Mitchell hits many familiar thematic notes: Otherness, power and its abuses, coincidence. Meticulous longtime readers will, as usual, be rewarded with whispered connections to the author’s earlier work; merely careful readers will delight in subtly recurring motifs (Dejima, an artificial island, is fan-shaped; handheld fans prove pivotal at least twice in the story).

After spending a carefully-wrought third of the book on de Zoet, the story veers off to a secluded convent and the nefarious goings-on therein. It’s tempting to ascribe a greater purpose to the abrupt detour—Mitchell might be reflecting the book’s pervasive notion of seclusion in its very structure. But the shift is awkward. As the tale progresses through mystical intrigue, swashbuckling adventure and high-stakes, high-seas maneuvering, it begins to lose its footing.

To call the novel a disappointment based on the author’s past work seems a bit unfair—after all, a story should be judged on its own merits. But we’re talking about a writer who could follow up a breathtaking, genre-hopping matryoshka doll of a book (2004’s Cloud Atlas) with, in 2006, Black Swan Green, an elegantly linear, semi-autobiographical bildungsroman. Nobody could accuse Mitchell of a lack of ideas; but even at 496 pages, Jacob de Zoet can’t quite manage all of them.

David Mitchell reads July 15-18 at various locations throughout the city.

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By David Mitchell (Random House, $26)

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