The novel opens with a magistrate’s concubine in the throes of a difficult childbirth. The baby has no pulse and is in a transverse breech position. If not delivered soon the mother will die. Dr Maeno feels helpless, not allowed to breach the muslin screen surrounding the bed. The muslin screen maybe a metaphor for Japan itself. He should not even be there, Dr Uragami was in charge of such an important birth, but not wanting to lose face and fearing the worst, he disappeared as soon as complications arose. Shame and dishonour await those who fail, an honourable death preferable to losing face. So perhaps Dr Uragami represents Japanese culture itself.
Miraculously the baby lives, due to the skill of the midwife. And because of the baby’s importance, Orito is rewarded with being allowed to study western medicine under the Dutch Doctor Marinus (yes, Marinus from The Bone Clocks).
1799 and Amsterdam is on its knees. Enemies on all sides just waiting for the kill. With an empty treasury the Dutch will surely lose Batavia if they do not receive copper from Japan. Copper to mint coins. Coins to pay its native armies. The copper must come through Dejima.
Dejima is an artificially created island that separates Japan from the outside world. The Japanese fearing western culture, religion, and technology, use this island as a shield and trading post. Japan has no navy; its defence, like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, is to hide itself away from the western world, banning all outside influence from its shores. Its subjects are forbidden from leaving the island. Their language and culture a mystery to outsiders.
The Dutch use Dejima as a trading waypoint and are the only European power with access to Japan.
Jacob De Zoet arrives on Dejima with the job of looking after the books, the ledgers of the warehouses. Charged with cleaning up the neglect and corruption that is rife on the artificial island, he hopes to make his fortune and return to marry into an important family back home after five years. He never expects to fall head over heels in love with Orito, the Japanese midwife from the first chapter, who is allowed onto Dejima while studying medicine under Dr Marinus.
But their love is doomed from the start. Before the nascent affair can grow, Orito is stolen away to a secretive shrine in which the nuns are little more than sexual slaves for the monks (again readers of The Bone Clocks will view this part of the book in a completely different and elucidating light).
With this being his fifth book, Mitchell delves into historical fiction and the juxtaposition between the different cultures, Dutch, Japanese, and English, makes for such an interesting read in a world that seems to shrink smaller every day. The Dutch and Japanese names make reading a little cumbersome at first, but familiarity grows with the story.
For me this is Mitchell’s best prose. Just like Japan, the writing is poetic and beautifully descriptive. I noticed myself enjoying the novel simply for the writing at times, whereas with other Mitchell novels the interconnected storylines dominate your concentration.
Strangely I would recommend reading The Bone Clocks before reading this novel. Rereading this after having read The Bone Clocks was a far richer and more rewarding experience. It is surprising how much of a difference it makes. Dr Marinus is an integral character and knowing his backstory does enlighten the reader profoundly.
With this book Mitchell has packed his literary tricks away and given the reader a beautiful love story set in a liminal world that exists between the West and the East.