This is not an easy book to read, but it sure as hell is a good one. Mitchell, of "Cloud Atlas" fame, pulls us into the world of turn of the century (19th Century, that is) Dejima, a small island off the coast of Japan near Nagasaki, the only patch of land on which the few permitted Dutch traders can live and work. Aside from this one outpost, Japan is a closed nation. The shogun two hundred years previously had outlawed interaction with any foreigner, and Japan is just now beginning to open itself to new technologies and languages. Jacob de Zoet is a clerk with the Dutch East India Company, there to enrich himself so he can return to Holland and marry the woman he loves. We follow several other characters, some Japanese and one Englishman, so that even though we skip around in time fairly frequently, the reader gets a full view of all the happenings.
I call this a difficult book to read not because of the writing, which is superb, but because of the subject matter and unflinching detail. Mitchell thrusts us into the story as a courtesan is giving birth to a baby who seems to be already dead, with only his arm sticking outside his mother's body. Mitchell continues this tenor throughout the book, and there are some parts one cannot read while eating, or even thinking about eating. You push through it, though, because Mitchell's writing is just so fantastic. Books like this are the reason I love reading so much: the language wraps itself around you, becomes almost a part of your mind as you read, and truths even the most dedicated philosopher expounds upon are put in simple, beautiful terms. This book absolutely makes me want to read everything Mitchell has and will write; he is truly a genuine talent.