The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Random House (New York: 2010).

The Thousand Autums of Jacob De ZoetA dense, rich novel of love not meant to be. Jacob, a young clerk with the Dutch East Indies Company in late 18th century Japan, becomes fascinated with the intelligent Miss Aibagawa, a local midwife whose facial scar has made her an outsider. Interestingly, Jacob isn’t her primary concern. Her point of view takes over when she’s exiled to a prison-like nunnery, from which Jacob would like to save her, but she looks to save herself. These characters stay with you, the prose is gorgeous, and the historical context is immersive and well-researched. We’re left with a resonant sense of the mark which a vivid experience can leave on a life.

For writers: In addition to the strengths already mentioned, writers should pay careful attention to the elasticity in the points of view here. Not only do they shift from one character to another – mostly in third person, sometimes in first – but even within a given point of view, there are shifts in closeness and tone. The central character of Jacob is rendered in third person, but the pov moves fluidly from more distant, ironic narration to close, free indirect style. For example, on the last page before Part Two, we are heartbreakingly close when Jacob realizes he loves Miss Aibagawa as he see her being taken away, and when he leaps the steps and opens his mouth to call out her name, but the last wry words belong to the narrator: “The well-oiled bolt slides home.”