Around the turn of the 19th century, Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet agrees to take a post with the Dutch East India Company with the trading port of Dejima near Nagasaki, Japan. He hopes that during his five year stint he can amass a fortune enough to impress his beloved’s father and get him to allow the marriage. A humble, pious man, de Zoet is a terrible fit for the society on Dejima, where corruption and dishonesty are the rule. Jacob struggles to get along with his duplicitous co-workers and maintain his principles, while befriending his interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon and falling for a Japanese midwife named Orito Aibagawa, the reverberations of which will be devastating.
While de Zoet may be the title character, Uzaemon and Aibagawa bear near equal weight as protagonists, and each gets ample space for their stories. Indeed, this is a book all about stories. Smaller characters seem to love stopping Jacob de Zoet and pouring out their tragic tales. The pattern that emerges is of life being total chaos. Chance meetings, lost jobs, falling in and out of love, economic downturns, and war all wreak havoc on the Europeans and Japanese alike on Dejima. Mitchell delights in spinning out these yarns one on top of the other, and their breadth and depth of imagination is staggering.
Mitchell’s plate-spinning theatrics are entertaining enough that they don’t imperil the momentum of the story, and he rather remarkably brings this unwieldy but fun novel to a thoroughly satisfyin conclusion.