Know anything about the Dutch India Company in Japan in the late 18th century? No, me neither. But David Mitchell certainly does! You can smell the thorough historical research that has gone into this novel. It is about a young man, Jacob de Zoet, setting out make his fortune, isolation in its many forms and about what people are willing to do in order to become immortal.
Apparently, ‘Zoet’ means ‘sweet’ in Dutch. So our protagonist is actually Jacob the Sweet. A good name, for he is an idealistic vicar’s son. He has come to Japan to prove his skills in trade, in order to be allowed to marry the patient Anna. She has promised to wait for him in the Netherlands, whilst he tries to rise from the lowly position of clerk to… well any other position in the Dutch East India-company would be considered an improvement in the eyes of Anna’s disapproving father.
The Dutch East-India Company is the only foreign power allowed to trade in Japan. The country’s isolation has kept them from becoming another European colony and Japanese culture has been allowed to develop freely. The Dutchmen are kept in almost complete isolation on an artificial island outside Nagasaiki; they cannot keep any Christian texts or artifacts and can only interact with Japanese people through translators.
In the beginning, Jacob is optimistic about his prospects in Japan; his boss likes him, and although he dislikes the other company employees (every single one is corrupt to the bone), he thinks he and his boss can turn the ship around. But quickly things become difficult. The new boss has no scruples about cutting a couple of corners to achieve his goals and makes his clerk do a lot, if not all, the dirty work. Will Jacob be willing to set aside his conscience for the sake of advancement and a swift return to Europe?
Although Anna has explicitly given Jacob permission to have sex with other women during the next five years away from her, as long as he does not fall in love with any of his lovers. Really, that Dutchwoman sounds like any 19th century man’s dream woman! Patient, rich and tolerant of extramarital liaisons! But as soon as Jacob arrives in Japan, he does exactly what Anna does not want; he does not take a mistress, but becomes infatuated with the midwife Orito. But very soon several succinct catastrophes occur: Jacob
Orito was my favorite character in this book. She is a highborn woman who has been taught Dutch from her scholar father, become one of the foremost midwifes in Nagasaki with a hunger for scientific discoveries. For the first part of the book, we only see her through the smitten eyes of Jacob, as a beautiful, mysterious and exotic woman. In the second part, we learn more about her back story, her motivations, private hopes for the future and thoughts about the men in her life. Jacob does what he can, poor man, to win her over, but nothing turns out the way he thought it would. One attempt at a date ends with him as a medical guinea pig (a bizarre scene with Jacob naked on the table and a long pipe!). At one point her father dies and she ends up in a nunnery/brothel were some seriously weird stuff is happening involving rape, babies and abbots that have been alive for a long time. Orito never quietly sits and waits for someone to rescue her from her situation, Annd although she sometimes despairs, she never gives up fighting! I saw that one reviewer compared her to June in A Handmaids Tale, and I can clearly see the parallels. Both women find themselves in circumstances in which they must hide their intelligence and guts in order to survive in a society that only cares about their ability to get pregnant. Both act like I would like to think I would act, if I was ever held in sex slavery! That is one sentence, I never expected to write.
Perhaps more than anything, this book is about isolation: Japan is isolated from the outside world. Dijima is largely isolated from Japanese society as well as the rest of the Orient and Europe. Jacob is isolated from his fellow Dutchmen in Dijima and Orito becomes cloistered atop a mountain in a cloister when she is orphaned. But things are changing, Japan may be forced to interact more with the outside world, Orito must escape her enforced impisonment. Jacob must adapt to the conditions and company at Dijima, and also try to make up for the mistakes he makes along the way.