It's always interesting how one person can love a book, rave that it's the best book ever, and the next person find it ho-hum. One of my book clubs selected Mitchell's book at the urging of one member, backed up by glowing reviews. One professional reviewer called it a page-turner; for me, not so much.
Jacob de Zoet, an earnest and honest young man, comes to Japan in 1799—a five-year undertaking—to earn enough money to be acceptable to his fiancé's father back home in The Netherlands. Jacob and the other employees of the Dutch East Indies Company are confined to a small artificial island called Dejima that sits in Nagasaki harbor, connected to the city by a well-guarded land bridge.
No other European country has ties with Japan. Fearful of outside influences, especially Christian ones after putting down a bloody rebellion, Japan enforces a policy of strict isolation. Only on rare occasions is the Chief invited across the bridge to confer with the Chamberlain, and the Japanese are not allowed to go to Dejima except as translators, soldiers, and—rarely—students. The Dutch workers are not allowed on pain of death to bring any Christian artifacts onto the island, a rule Jacob, the son of a preacher, immediately breaks.
Arriving with Jacob is Vorstenbosch, who will be the interim Chief since the previous one passed away. He sets Jacob the task of untangling the financial records, mangled during the corrupt rule of his predecessor. Of course, curtailing their thievery doesn't endear Jacob to the others, a rough bunch of louts.
Despite my friend's recommendation, I was bored by the first part of the book: uninteresting and unpleasant characters, all familiar types; unclear plot direction; ugly environment. Mitchell embraces the trendy aesthetic of frenetic jump cuts made more hyper by the use of present tense. Short scenes are thrown at the reader with no transitions between them and no connecting narrative. There's little foreshadowing, and multiple plotlines are left hanging. I felt like I was being pelted with sharp bits of glass that may or may not ever be used to form a coherent mosaic.
The second part abandons Dejima entirely, going off into the countryside to follow two Japanese characters. At least they each have a plotline. Later we return to Dejima, but not to Jacob's exclusive point of view. We debated at some length about what purpose the second part serves and how it relates to the rest of the novel, if at all. As one member of my book club said, it is as though the second part is a different book entirely, a Gothic novel stuck in the middle of an incredibly detailed realistic novel about life in this lonely outpost at the end of the 18th century.
The details are indeed amazing. Mitchell's research is formidable, especially about the minutiae of everyday life. I appreciated the harsh realism; most historical novels draw a sentimental veil over some of the more pungent facts of life in olden days, like the bathing only once or twice a year or the primitive lavatories. There are moments when the book rises to greatness, a few passages here and there that moved me deeply and that I will remember for a long time. One member of the book club noted a small chapter from the point of view of a slave, unconnected to anything else in the book, which she called a “jewel”, so beautifully written.
I struggled with the story, bewildered by the choppy writing and lack of a traditional narrative arc. The use of the present tense puts the reader more in the moment but adds to the feeling of whiplash. But I'll caution again that just because it wasn't to my taste doesn't mean it won't be to yours. Certainly many people love it. And even within our small group, one person liked the first part and not the rest, another the second, while I really only liked the third part.
What we did agree on was the perpetual relevance of the theme of corruption and dishonesty, not perhaps the main theme of the book but certainly present throughout. While I would like to believe people will behave well even when they are not observed, many do not. One of our members told a story of a briefcase left on a subway in Japan that was still on the seat when the train completed its circuit and returned to the station, followed by her recent trip to Heathrow where someone's suitcase had sprung open on the luggage carousel; by the time it came around again everything had been stolen by the other passengers. We went on to talk about the corrupt practices in some of our city's departments. So the book is definitely a good one for prompting book club discussions.
To complete such a complex and ambitious novel is a huge accomplishment. That it didn't appeal to me shouldn't keep you from trying it. I certainly admire the book and recognise Mitchell's achievement.