I should probably start by saying I’m not a fan of historical fiction. I guess The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an example of historical magical realism, though it’s relatively skimpy on the magical part. It has echoes of Cloud Atlas, my favorite novel last year, though it’s certainly more in the realm of the historical. I was bored through most of it. I read most of the second half today – it’s really long – simply because I didn’t want to be reading it anymore. After The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I was looking for a short, easy read, and this novel certainly doesn’t qualify. That said, I usually avoid historical novels, and for a historical novel, this one isn’t bad, though I found a few problems. I’ll get to that in a minute.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki around the turn of the nineteenth century. The main character is Jacob de Zoet, who is trying to win a bride in the Netherlands by getting enough money in the East. But things happen, and so on, and so on. He falls in love with a Japanese woman named Orito who ends up in a shrine that’s basically a farm for babies born to be consumed by monks who are trying to live forever. I guess that’s the magical realism part. It takes up the middle third of the book and is the only part that really interested me. There’s a multitude of characters from both the East and the West, and their cultures conflict, etc, etc. No one knows who he can trust. And it just goes on and on.
The two storylines – Jacob’s life and Orito’s – are the novel’s main problem: Mitchell doesn’t seem to tie them together well enough. It’s like two novels in one, and the only thing they really have in common is that they include the same characters. I also think the novel is simply too long and that lots of it seems like Mitchell did lots of research and doesn’t want it to go to waste. I was bored, but it kept my interest enough for me to finish it, and since it’s so long, that’s something. As I’m not a fan of historical fiction, I’m not a fan of long books. That said, I’ve been reading lots of long books lately.
So, to the verdict: It’s okay. I didn’t dislike it, though it’s certainly not in my list of favorites. It certainly wasn’t as good as Cloud Atlas, and it’s making me question how much I liked Cloud Atlas in the first place. I’m not sure what I think about reading more Mitchell: I first read him because of the comparisons to Murakami, but they’re not really that similar except for the string of magical realism, which is much more evident (and interesting) in Murakami’s works.