Another Booker Prize nomination is likely to greet this ambitious and fascinating fifth novel—a full-dress historical, and then some—from the prodigally gifted British author (Black Swan Green, 2006, etc.).
In yet another departure from the postmodern Pynchonian intricacy of his earlier fiction, this is the story of a devout young Dutch Calvinist (the eponymous Jacob) sent in 1799 to Japan, where the Dutch East India Company, aka the VOC, had opened trade routes more than two centuries earlier. But now the Company is threatened by the envious British Empire, which seeks to appropriate the Far East’s rich commercial opportunities. Jacob’s purpose is to acquire sufficient wealth and experience to earn the hand of his fiancée Anna. But his mission is to serve as a ship’s clerk while simultaneously investigating charges of corruption against the Company’s powerful Chief Resident. When a scandal involving the seizure of the much-desired commodity of copper is manipulated to implicate Jacob, he is posted to the artificially constructed island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, becoming a de facto prisoner of an insular little world of rigorously patterned and controlled cultural—and commercial—rituals. Meanwhile, the story of Aibagawa Orita, a facially disfigured (hence unmarriageable) midwife authorized to study with the Company’s doctor (the saturnine Marinus, a kind of Pangloss to Jacob’s earnest Candide), punished for having aspired beyond her station, and the moving story of her planned escape from servitude and reunion with the beloved (Uzaeman) forbidden to marry her (which contains deft echoes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ondaatje’s The English Patient), mocks, as it exalts, Jacob’s concealed love for this extraordinary woman. The story climaxes as British forces challenge the Dutch hold on the East’s riches, and Jacob’s long ordeal hurtles toward its conclusion.
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. Comparisons to Tolstoy are inevitable, and right on the money.