What We’re Reading: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Gist: A trip to 18th century Japan which is more Lord Jim than Shogun, the new novel from the author of Cloud Atlas navigates the narrow channel between filthy capitalism and delicate love. Although he’s ostensibly on a five-year mission to rid the Dutch East India Company’s Nagasaki outpost of corruption, the title character is really just there to impress his girl back home. Things get complicated when he learns that they also have women in Japan.

Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
Page Count: 496
Pages Read: 81

Does It Work? Mitchell knows how well he writes, and he is good enough to hold himself back. He lets his dialogue carry the story, and restricts descriptions to a few lines here and there—the claustrophobic, artificial island where the Dutch live and work is made vivid by his sharp jabs. This is a lovely novel.

Best Moment So Far: Jacob meets his new flame when they both find themselves chasing an ape (really) that has stolen an amputated leg from an operating room. (Really.) The ape clambers to a high shelf, “places the leg at his side, grips his rhubarb-pink penis, and twangs it like a harpist in a madhouse, cackling through bared teeth.” When Jacob reaches for it, he is greeted by “a warm and liquid whiplash, smelling of roast beef.” Yuck!

Odds We’ll Finish It: 3/1. Nothing stands in our way but the novel’s length and the oppressive humidity of June in New York. But we shall likely press on, if only because we’ve been told the later chapters contain ninjas. 

Highly Niggling Complaint: In an otherwise amusing passage of 18th-century medical blather, a learned surgeon refers to Jacob’s intestines as “caverns measureless to man.” It is an almost-too-cute smartypants allusion to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which would work better if that poem hadn’t been published 18 years after the novel takes place. Get with it, Mitchell!


What We’re Reading: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet