The fifth novel by David Mitchell is a historical one. The hero is a Dutch clerk working in Japan at the beginning of the 19th century, a country also called the Land of the Thousand Autumns. So, these are, in a sense, the unwritten memoirs of clerk de Zoet of all those years he spent in the Orient. And what story do these memoirs tell!
Japan at the end of 18th century, when our hero arrives, is a very closed country. In fact, the Dutch are the only Europeans "allowed" in Nagasaki. The truth is that they are strictly prohibited from entering Nagasaki or have any kind of relation to any local, apart from the interpreters. Moreover, upon their arrival they have to give to the authorities any kind of religious symbol, any Bible, cross or rosary they might possess. Under such circumstances Jacob meets Orito Aibagawa, a japanese midwife who is one of the apprentices of dutch medicine.
If a romance should develop between those characters, it should be pretty impossible too. A dutch could not marry a local, he could only have a concubine. Miss Aibagawa was a scholar, from a family well-established in the japanese status, so such thoughts were unacceptable. Despite all those obstacles Jacob proposes to her, with the help of an interpreter, and then the least possible thing happens: she disappears!
This is the point where the novel gets complicated. It's more like a crossroad between two different timelines. The first, which unravels in the second part of the book, is related to what happened to Orito Aibagawa and the second storyline, which returns with the third part of the book, follows Jacob's actions and a conflict with a british frigate. This is also the part when I was most disappointed with this book. Although both of the storylines where interesting and thrilling and I genuinely wanted to know what happens next I was torn in half. Jacob didn't appear in the story of Orito, although I was waiting for it and eventually he was the one that gave her her life back. For me the catharsis didn't actually happen. The resolution was determined through the course of events and chance (once again in a David Mitchell novel), not from the initiative of the hero.
When eventually everything ends the story goes a decade later. Jacob is still in Japan, he had a son with a local and became chief of the dutch establishment in Nagasaki. The mother of his son though isn't Orito, in fact he hasn't met her up to this day. And when they do meet, it's just for a few minutes and a brief explanation from Jacob's part as to what had happened.
Then we go another five years later and we find Jacob on a ship leaving Japan. It's quite an emotional chapter, it devastated me to be honest. He will never return to Japan or meet his son again. Back in the Netherlands he will make another family and spend his days wishing he could find some time to write his memoirs. And when he finally dies the last image will be that of a japanese woman with a half burnt face.
The world is a vale of tears.
I would consider this novel the most difficult one comparing it to the others of David Mitchell. The author's language reminded me of that in various japanese novels I have read from time to time. The descriptions of Japan and of this particular era were amazing. Furthermore there were some of my favourite characters in this book. I adored Dr. Marinus with his scientific ways and his groundbreaking ideas for the japanese minds and Lord Abbot Enomoto is one of the most interesting villains I have encountered in literature.
All in all, this is a novel strongly recommended for those who love both demanding and devastating reads. But if you haven't read anything by David Mitchell before I would advise to turn to his other novels first.
So, my advice is...
A historical thriller to exercise the brain!