For me, the appeal of David Mitchell is his ability to write in any voice and nail it. It's a skill, but I'm sure it also requires significant research. In most of his novels, the reader is entertained by several of these voices from beginning to end. In a couple, Mitchell employs more traditional means and keeps to one story, one time period. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is one of the latter. It's a fairly straight-forward historical novel. But of course Mitchell had to break up the narrative somehow. And this was when the book fell apart.
In The Thousand Autumns..., Mitchell opens a window onto Japan during its period of isolation. The research is clear in the writing, and Mitchell's talents are obvious. Had the narrative stuck with de Zoet, as it does for the first 175 pages, I would've been pleased. But then we're transported to a mountain cult which didn't lend much to the story. Then back to de Zoet briefly, then an English ship, then we're just all over the place for the rest of the book. It's Mitchell's signature style, and it certainly could've worked, but the problem was I didn't care about Orito and her shrine days, I didn't care about the English, I wanted Jacob de Zoet. Wasn't this book supposed to be about him?
I get that Mitchell had set up a chess board here, that certain pieces needed to make certain moves, that other pieces had to fall. I get all that. Largely, I think I understand what he was doing here. But the story became so overwrought that it forgot the most important part: the story. I've always been entertained with Mitchell's writing. Even when I think the story is a poor hack of another author's style (number9dream), or is a bit dry (“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”), or is difficult to read (“Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After”), I am entertained. Here, I was frankly bored. I know entertainment isn't everything, but it's a big something, and The Thousand Autumns... could have used more of it.