The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I finished reading this book last Friday – it was June’s nomination for the book club in which I’m a member. It was actually my nomination and usually when it’s my book, I feel a large degree of responsibility. I can’t help it.

Each month, books are selected through a quixotic mixture of argument, charm, determination, coersion and pure luck. Sometimes the first book put up gets the green light, and sometimes the book doesn’t emerge until the very last minute, often after the distinctive clang of the last orders bell. It’s a noisy and satisfying exercise, lubricated by copious quantities of alcohol.

Our book club is unique. We have rules, we have non-rules and we have traditions. We have understandings and unwritten agreements. We have arguments and accord in equal measure. It’s complicated and simple at the same time.

We’ve been meeting for over three years now and there hasn’t been a single evening that has been a waste of time. Sure, there has been evenings shrouded in frustration and beer flies. And some nights have delivered some of the most edifying discussions I’ve ever had. Book club has, over the years, become a very important part of my life – making the selection of the books we read a very delicate process.

Out of this process last month emerged The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

I’d read one of Mitchell’s previous books (and no, it’s not the Peep Show guy) called Cloud Atlas and it made a big impression on me. A deeply textured and complex book of short stories that were all inextricably linked to each other with a common theme. I even remember where I read it on holiday: Majorca.

So I approached this book with real anticipation. It was big – around 500 pages – and this in itself is unusual for book club as our reluctance to commit to anything too weighty is legend around these parts (or at least in The Victoria). The hardback version is a particularly handsome edition with plenty of foil blocking effects on the cover (and don’t get us started on judging books by their cover either), along with nicely considered typography and vellum style paper.

So on to the content.

Set in 18th Century Nagasaki, the book tells the story of the eponymous Dutchman Jacob de Zoet and his life as an outsider on a trading post in Japan. The author has clearly done his homework and the level of historical detail from both the western and eastern angles is impressive. As the story unfolds, the cultural chasm that separates the two worlds is beautifully – if over descriptively at times – played out.

I won’t write a spoiler blog if you’re planning to read it, all I would say is that it would make the perfect holiday book for lazing on a beach or around a pool with. Plus it has the added value that if used as a weapon, it would kill stone dead any large bugs that are plaguing you or indeed any large rodents.

We had a very lengthy discussion at The Cross Keys around this book and the themes (or some thought the lack of themes) and it seems to me like it’s the kind of book that would appeal on a number of levels. On one hand it’s a simple, evocative and pleasurable read that’s very well written that transports you somewhere amazing and on the other it’s a high minded cautionary tale around the east/west cultural dissonance that still exists to this day.

I have a spare copy – let me know if you’d like it and I’ll loan it out.

2 thoughts on “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

  1. never feel responsible for nominating phil, after all it’s a collective decision in the end and love or loathe the book we never fail to have a cracking debate about it with this book being no exception. Nice one.

  2. Thanks mate – as I say, I can’t help it. I know it’s a collective decision, but there’s something about putting something up that’s a rewarding experience in the discussion and, if possible, the reading too.

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