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anneliesscott

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

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Leyla, I gave it to my mother for Christmas and she read it right away and loved it. I just finished it and I really enjoyed it. The writing was luminous and the characters very engaging. My only problem with the book was that I thought Orito's story was over the top and seemed out of place in a book that had been so meticulously researched and evoked a particular time and place with such realism. Maybe I underestimate the extent of human depravity and the story of what happened to her is based on something true (not sure I want to know if that's the case).

 

Finally, though, I ended up making my peace with it based on an off-hand comment I read somewhere else. Mitchell is known for playing with time and place and what he played with here was form, leaving time and place to operate relatively normally. So the JDZ parts were historical fiction, the Orito part was gothic horror or romance or both, the part with the English attempt to take over Dejima was an adventure story, and the end of the book was simply the story of one man's life. When I thought if it that way, I became much more comfortable with the story and the way it was told and could just relax into it.

 

I am not someone who liked Cloud Atlas, at the least the part of it I read, since I gave up, but I have to say that Mitchell's writing is just gorgeous. His images throughout were arresting and I sometimes re-read them for the pleasure of it. Here's one: "Plums are piled in a terra-cotta dish, blue-dusted indigo." At the beginning of chapter 39, he lists everything a gull is seeing from above Nagasaki and it goes on for almost a page. I was well into it before I realized how much it was designed to rhyme and have rhythm like a poem. If you are reading and get to this part, read it aloud. Not only is the language luscious to listen to, but the images are very vivid.

 

I do want to point out that I didn't catch the significance of the butterflies, especially the black and white butterflies, until very late. If you are reading it for the first time, pay attention to them!

 

Finally, on a personal note, I loved reading this book because my grandmother grew up in Saga, Japan about 100 years after the events of this book (she was born in 1904). She was not Japanese; her parents were missionaries. Saga is mentioned a lot in the book and each time, it reminded me of her. She told me stories of her childhood the entire time I was growing up and I kept being reminded of what she told me. She, like Jacob, was a red-head. In the book, the Japanese call Jacob a "red-headed Barbarian." They called my grandmother a "red-haired American devil," which her older brother found so upsetting that he cut off all of her hair. She never seemed to have minded it very much, I guess feeling that it was sort of a badge of honor. When she was a child, she had an amusing encounter (story too long for this thread) with a very elderly widow, whose teeth were blackened. This was already an old-fashioned custom when my grandmother was little and was limited only to married women. Mitchell mentions women with blackened teeth a couple of times, but in his book, unmarried women did it, too, which was apparently accurate. In the intervening 100 years, fewer and fewer women did it (for, what seems to me, obvious reasons). Of course, since my great-grandparents were missionaries, I was interested in the role of Christianity, although obviously the restrictions had been relaxed a great deal by the time my great-grandparents showed up in the late 1800s. Finally, my great-grandfather was one of the first westerners to visit Korea and he wrote a dictionary that was used for many years. Jacob also wrote a dictionary of Japanese and once again, I was reminded of the stories I had heard. Obviously, my mother remembered much of this, too, although I think that my grandmother may have told me even more because she had the time to tell stories, something the mother of young children doesn't always have. Anyway, I loved that aspect of the book, but I realize it won't be that evocative for everyone.

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Wow Binker, what fascinating anecdotes. With that family history the book must have had extra resonance for you. And the accuracy of Mitchell's details based on your ancestors' experiences hint at how much research he must have done to get things absolutely right.

 

I also very much liked your extremely perceptive point about Mitchell playing with form so that Orito's experience was more gothic horror while other aspects of the book were inclined to historical realism. I hadn't thought of that but it makes perfect sense given his interest in experimenting with form in Cloud Atlas. I did like Cloud Atlas very much indeed, unlike you, but I absolutely loved this novel. As you say, it's so stunningly written. There were so many parts where I shivered inwardly at his ability to evoke mood in unconventional ways - the use of birds and other wildlife was a particularly beautiful example. And yes, his prose is so delicious - some parts glide over the page, others are truly poetic.

 

It is just inexcusable that this book was left off the Man Booker shortlist. What were the judges thinking of? It really makes me think they would be better off having a larger panel, and one made up of literary editors from the most respected literary publications. The use of celebs unlinked to the world of books is really rather stupid for such a prestigious prize.

 

I'm so glad both you and your mum enjoyed it. Thanks for giving me some ideas I hadn't thought of to chew over, and for the history of your family, which makes parts of the book more meaningful for me now. (eg the info about teeth blackening.)

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