What it is about
The story follows the struggles and fates of a few central characters on and around the Dutch East Indies Company’s trading post Dejima right off the bay of Nagasaki, starting in 1799. We chiefly follow clerk Jacob de Zoet as he navigates his way around the foreign culture, corruption, homesickness, blossoming friendships, and rivalries.
And in the midst of it all, de Zoet falls in love with Miss Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife studying with a certain Dr Marinus. We follow her as she is sent off against her will the disquieting Lord Abbot Enomoto’s Mount Shiranui Shrine which holds a dark secret, and as she forges a place for herself within her confines.
What it really is about
This book weaves together clashes both at the level of cultures, at the level of groups, at the level of individuals, and at the level of values, goals, ambitions, dreams, and personalities – and captures the never-ending task of every human being to negotiate their own way through all of these struggles.
We see clashes of belief systems, of ambition and veracity, of cultural independence and colonial connectedness, of science and belief, of systems and principles of sovereignty, of the cruelties of slavery and how frighteningly easy one goes along with what counts as normal; of dreams and realities, of one’s personal goals and one’s loyalties, one’s ideals and the dark sides everyone has, of arrogance and humility, of struggling and of acceptance and making a place for oneself.
But Mitchell hardly ever suggests any easy answers for these clashes, and I really appreciate that. What I personally love most is the novel’s rich down-to-earth melancholia about the way one’s life turns out with time through all the forces and influences out of one’s control, including incalculable consequences of one’s own actions and inactions; and its depiction of the struggles one goes through in making the choices one has to make (or forever regret) to stay true to oneself. And, finally, the novel beautifully drives home how we can ultimately only ever ascertain and assess some of these things, and in hindsight.
A little postscript: Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks,” (2014) set in the same universe, should if possible be read before this book as it makes sense of some of the happenings at Mount Shiranui Shrine, at least partly redeeming their otherwise uncomfortably orientalist vibes.