This book starts out very slowly as it introduces a plethora of characters. It is set in Nagasaki at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Jacob de Zoet is a young Dutchman, working for the Dutch East India Company in Japan. He has left the Netherlands in hopes of making a fortune in the East so he can marry the girl he is leaving behind. Jacob comes to Deijima, a manmade island that the Japanese have set up as the sole location for trade with the West. Jacob is traveling with the new chief, Unico Vostenbosch, who is tasked with rooting out company corruption. Jacob is a likeable, honest, even eager acolyte in serving the company, a position which gives rise to conflicts with the existing corrupt staff. The non-Japanese (Dutch, Irish, English, Ceylonese and American) are physically confined to this island as the Japanese attempt to keep Japan closed to western influences. Jacob meets and quickly falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese mid-wife. This relationship is not possible in this setting, so Jacob uses some subterfuge to convey to her his feelings. This section of the book is slow going and somewhat frustrating as the interactions between the Europeans and the Japanese plod along. No doubt intentional on the author’s part to allow us to feel the stifling atmosphere experienced here.
In the middle section of the book, Orito is literally “engifted” to a nunnery to pay off her late father’s debts. The shrine where she is sent is overseen by an evil lord, Enomoto, who with his monks is impregnating the women and then murdering their children. Orito has been brought there to serve as the midwife for the nunnery. She is deeply unhappy and contemplates escape. Unbeknownst to Jacob, his interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon also is in love with Orito. When a scroll outlining the terrible acts committed at the nunnery comes into Uzaemon’s possession he decides to act to free Orito. Before going off Uzaemon gives the scroll to Jacob. Uzaemon is not successful in freeing Orito and is killed by Enomoto.
In the last section of the book a British frigate arrives and the actions that follow set the stage for all of the plot lines to be pulled together. I won’t give away the ending but I found it deeply satisfying.
The historical aspects of this novel are well researched and ring true. The setting for this story is exotic, rich and gripping. The author’s ability to write dialogue for characters from different ethnic backgrounds and account for their language and style is exceptional and adds to the realism of this story. His ability to place these characters within the world events of the time period also adds to the richness of this story. The love story while somewhat understated I found to be very powerful and even haunting. The author is able to describe Japan and Japanese society in a way that shows it to be corrupt but also alluring and complex.
This book requires more attention than your standard summer read but in my opinion is an epic saga full of adventure and memorable characters - well worth the time.