Monday, February 28, 2011


This one was given to me by one of my most trustworthy reader friends (i.e., I don't think he's ever passed me a dud), but he warned me that this is not a page-turner. And he's right. It's a book to relish rather than race through--in fact, I found myself turning back at times to reread pages. At points, I found it a bit "writerly," with its metaphors. But most of it is genius. The plot? A young Dutch man (de Zoet) is a clerk for the Dutch East Indes Co., in 1799 on Dejima, a small island in Nagasaki Harbor. He's betrothed to Anna (back in Holland), but falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a midwife with a startling burn on her face. Then Orito is spirited off to a strange shrine where the women are "engifted" by monks, only to have their newborns vanish. I won't tell any more (that's enough of a spoiler). Although the main "action" takes place over only a year, the novel has the feel of an epic. And (perhaps not surprising, giving the time period) it felt to me to have many of the same themes as late-18th and 19th-century novels. Trollope comes to mind first, with his themes of corruption and honor, how everyone has a price, whether it's money (easy to refuse, though most characters in this novel don't) or a beloved friend's life (much harder). Also Dickens, with his consciousness about language and representation (especially during the scenes where Jacob has to translate words like "repercussions" and explain the criminal connotations of the phrase "in broad daylight"); and the depictions of how vilely cruel one person can be to another.

Perhaps the thing I loved most was the cast of characters beyond Jacob; they all had such distinct voices. Excerpts never quite do a novel justice, but here is Fiacre Muntervary, explaining how he became a thief and prisoner: "We pawned Da's tools, but soon enough me, ma, five sisters, an' one little brother, Padraig, were living in a crumbling barn, where Padraig caught a chill, an' that's one less mouth to feed. Back in the city I tried the docks, the breweries, I tried feckin' everything, but no luck. So back I went to the pawnbroker ... and he says '[Your father's tools're] sold, handsome, but it's winter an' folks need coats. I pay shiny shillings for good coats. You understand me?'" And here's Van Cleef, on how he ended up in bed with his aunt Gloria: "Oh, lawful wedlock, awful bedlock yes, yes, ... Batavia-born I was, but sent to Amsterdam to learn the gentlemanly arts: how to spout bastard Latin, how to dance like a peacock, and how to cheat at cards. ... My 'aunt Gloria' was four years my junior and one-third the age of her proud groom [my cruel uncle] ... Gloria, you must remember, had rarely gone beyond the Singel Canal. Java was as far off as the moon. Farther, in fact, for the moon is, at least, visible from Amsterdam."

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