The Literary Horizon: Passion, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Today, we’re looking at two historical fiction novels that I discovered this summer, that focus on two distinctly different topics–the women of the Romantic movement and the relationship between the Japanese and the Dutch.

Passion by Jude Morgan

In the turbulent years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, three poets–Byron, Shelley, and Keats–come to prominence, famous and infamous, for their vivid personalities, and their glamorous, shocking, and sometimes tragic lives. In this electrifying novel, those lives are explored through the eyes of the women who knew and loved them–intensely, scandalously.

Four women from widely different backgrounds are linked by a sensational fate. Mary Shelley: the gifted daughter of gifted parents, for whom passion leads to exile, loss, and a unique fame. Lady Caroline Lamb: born to fabulous wealth and aristocratic position, who risks everything for the ultimate love affair. Fanny Brawne: her quiet, middle-class girlhood is transformed–and immortalized–by a disturbing encounter with genius. Augusta Leigh: the unassuming poor relation who finds herself flouting the greatest of all taboos.

via Amazon

I have to admit, I’m not overly fond of the Romantics–while I like them just fine, my main interest in them is reserved for Lord Byron, who had the utter gall to mock Keats immediately after his death, among many, many other things. But when I saw Ana over at things mean a lot give Passion a glowing review, I immediately perked up. A book that gives these women agency and explores their connection and interaction with the Romantic movement? In the words of Jon Stewart, go on.

Ana’s review gives Passion some of the highest praise I can think of–she compares Morgan’s work to Sarah Waters. Trudy over at Compulsive Overreader loved it, although she felt that the Brawne and Keats storyline felt a little disconnected from the rest. I think it sounds wonderful, and I look forward to picking it up.

Passion was published on October 13, 2005.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the most influential novelists in the world. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review called him simply “a genius.” Now David Mitchell lends fresh credence to The Guardian’s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from that which preceded it.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a stunning departure for this brilliant, restless, and wildly ambitious author, a giant leap forward by even his own high standards. A bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history, it is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.

The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland.

But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings.  As one cynical colleague asks, “Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?”

A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author.

via Amazon

I’ve been tuning out all the kerfuffle over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom–because I’m not terribly interested in the story and because of all the attention, I’m going to let it sit for a few years. Instead, this past summer, the book being heavily pushed in my direction from the media was The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I saw it in The New York Times Magazine and heard about it on NPR. But what made me sit down and add it to the list was listening to Mitchell, being interviewed, talk about the difficulty of writing period language. This is a writer who knows his stuff, I thought. (Also, every time I think the title in my head, Terry Gross is saying it.)

Teresa at Shelf Love enjoyed it, especially the characterization of the titular Jacob and the treatment of the “culture clash”. Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic gives a very warm and glowing review. David Mitchell sounds like an author I need to get acquainted with soon.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was published on June 29, 2010.

2 thoughts on “The Literary Horizon: Passion, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

  1. I read ‘Cloud Atlas’ by the same author, and enjoyed it (so would be interested in what you think of ‘Thousand Autumns…’) but was unable to fully enjoy it because of its cleverness. I like novels to transport me to a real world, whereas reading ‘Cloud Atlas’ one was always aware of its artifice. It’s very well written, but for me, slightly disengaging.


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