Jacob de Zoet is a young Dutch clerk employed by the East India Company in Japan in 1799. He is working there for five years to earn enough money to marry his fiance, who remains in Holland. The politicking among both Japanese and Dutch merchants creates tension within, and between both communities, and when Jacob meets, and falls for Orito Aibagawa, the daughter of a samurai doctor with connections to the city’s powerful magistrate, he finds out just how difficult life can be for him.
“… this widely-held belief that Japan is an impregnable fortress is a pernicious delusion. Honourable Academicians, we are a ramshackle farmhouse with crumbling walls, a collapsing roof and covetous neighbours.”
“The river below is a drunk, charging boulders and barging banks.”
“Long and curving rice paddies stripe the low and laddered mountains.”
“The goats and a dog engage in a battle of bleating and barking.”
“‘Had a man fallen asleep two centuries ago,’ Marinus speculates, ‘and awoken this morning, he should recognise his world unchanged in essence. Ships are still wooden, disease is still rampant. No man may travel faster than a galloping horse, and no man may kill another out of eyeshot. But were the same fellow to fall asleep tonight and sleep for a hundred years, or eighty, or even sixty, on waking he shall not recognise the planet for the transformations wrought upon it by Science.’”
The author presents a fascinating window into the world of eighteenth-century Japan, from the authentic setting and strong characterization to the intriguing plot. The writing style may not be to everyone’s taste (fragmented sentences, thoughts entwined with spoken dialogue), but I thought it added to the realism. Also, careful reading is needed to understand some cultural and social nuances, as well as to appreciate the varied vocabulary. So strong was the characterization that, by the end of the book, I was thoroughly captivated with the main character, Jacob de Zoet. Very highly recommended.
New York Times: “Its pacing can be challenging, and its idiosyncrasies are many. But it offers innumerable rewards for the patient reader and confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive.”
Kirkus: “It’s as difficult to put this novel down as it is to overestimate Mitchell’s virtually unparalleled mastery of dramatic construction, illuminating characterizations and insight into historical conflict and change.”