Posted on | May 23, 2010 | 10 Comments
In terms of books being confusing and complex, this one ranks right up there. New characters being introduced every couple of pages, the story taking dramatic turns, changing from showing corruption while trading in the 18th-19th century to a surreal adventure story, and there’s a love story thrown in, just for good measure as well.
But no – that’s not all. In fact, that’s simplifying it much.
The book has one of the most graphic opening chapters, where a child is coming into the world, already dead. However, by some miracle, Orito (a midwife) saves the life of the child (and the mother). It’s 1799 and the place is Nagasaki. Christianity is banned, most of the women are “wives” or prostitutes, and the locals and foreigners interact with the help of “interpreters,” as the Dutch aren’t allowed to study the local dialect.
The importance of the birth and the sequence of events it triggers isn’t obvious in a first chunk of the book. Instead, we’re introduced to the Dutchmen who inhabit the artificial island of Dejima – the corrupt greedy Dutch, working for the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch East India Company). Most of them are corrupt, trying best to figure out how to forge the books for their own personal gains, but there’s the one employee/clerk who puts honour above all else : Jacob de Zoet.
Things get complicated when he falls in love with Orito, the midwife, and they get even further twisted when she’s abducted and sent to the Shrine of Shiranui – where she’s set to become a nun at a convent. The Shrine isn’t really a convent though, and the Goddess isn’t really a Goddess. Think The Handmaid’s Tale… with a twist.
And here, we’ve just finished part one of the book! I don’t want to give too much away, but the rest of the book is a whirlwind, with things happening at the blink of an eye: power trips and struggles, love, betrayal, tragedy, courage and a thirst for the truth.
The writing is extraordinary – something I’ve come to expect from David Mitchell’s books (despite reading only the two). The ambience he creates almost seems to transport me back to the eighteenth century Dejima/Nagasaki. Considering most of my historical association with Nagasaki stems from August 9, 1945, this was a pleasant change. Mitchell even gave a nod to the growing friction between the English and the Dutch in their quest for power in Asia, and the extent to which the respective parties would go. Fantastic, as it almost seemed like text book stuff – but so much more gripping.
I enjoyed the book, but not as much as number9dream, nor as much as Cloud Atlas. I thought this book was less “fun,” and more “serious” – the experimental style of Mitchell’s writing does still exist, but I think, the ambition of this novel lay more in the plot than the surrealism or ambiguity that I’ve come to associate with his writing. I’ve still got two unread books by David Mitchell, and I’m curious to see how this would compare with them.
Do you have a favourite book by David Mitchell? What do you think makes the book stand out?