First Impressions: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

[This truly is a first impression as I've only started reading the book.]

Stylistically, the story progresses unencumbered by flourishes. This is not to say the prose is sparse or that the narrative isn’t devoid of abundance. For one, it is chock full of phrases and vocabulary dating to the period—1799 on a Dutch trading post on the shore of Japan—which would take a great deal of time and effort to track down but which the wise reader trusts the author to have researched and accepts as good texture for a historical work. For another, the novel is expansive in a way few seem to be, interested in several characters, not rushing to put any single one through a moment of reckoning. The complexity of the setting and the breadth of the narrative allow for a wonderful immersion reminiscent of “Anna Karenina” or other classic historical novels. And there are startlingly good descriptions subtly woven into the narrative, as when “cicadas shriek in ratcheted rounds” (29) or when one of the characters, Ouwehand, says to another in morning passing, “Another furnace of a day ahead” (30). A clock even becomes something of a character in its own right. “The Almelo clock divides the time with bejeweled tweezers” (36) is just one of several lines devoted to it.

Jacob is a clerk working for the Dutch East India Company on an artificial island on the shore of Nagasaki, hoping to earn enough to convince the father of his amour he would make a worthy husband. As a clerk and an amateur artist he is detail-oriented, opening the door for plenty of that good narrative texture and even a few illustrations. As of yet (I’ve just finished chapter 7—the first 90 pages) there is too much incident and description to allow for much psychological depth. Jacob is lonely, misses his fiancée Anna, is unaccountably taken with a disfigured Japanese midwife, and prevented from making friends by his official task of searching out irregularities in previous years’ accounting so those responsible can be duly punished and corruption weeded out.

There is also much discussion, most interestingly with the Japanese interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, about romantic love and marriage, a topic which seems to render most westerners wistful. Ogawa believes “A man should love his concubine, so when love dies he say, ‘Goodbye,’ easy and no injury. Marriage is different: marriage is matter of head…rank…business…bloodline” (86).Tellingly, Ogawa follows this with a question: “Holland families are not same?” Jacob responds, “We are exactly the same, alas.”

Will Jacob make it through his service unmolested (or without further molestation after a certain Dr. Marinus’s ill use of his body in a scene painful to read)? Will he come away with a sufficient fortune to satisfy his would-be father-in-law's ambition? Or will he fall in love with Miss Aibagawa, the midwife, and forget Anna? How will his sensitive and romantic and conscientious mind see him through these travails? The reading is brisk and delightful so I’ll have answers soon enough.