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A promising beginning that gets derailed.
on January 24, 2012
For starters, I should say that this is my first experience reading Mitchell. I've seen a lot of reviews referencing his other work, so I think it's best to point out that I'm starting from tabula rasa in that regard.
That said, the beginnings of this novel were promising -- the eponymous character's naïve struggle with the culture of corruption on Dejima and his infatuation with a disfigured midwife were engaging, and the characters were interesting and believable; Jacob de Zoet seems to be a genuinely likable character and his budding friendship with an interpreter, based at first on shared interests and later on shared secrets - was also fertile soil for this type of West-meets-East story. I enjoyed the author's prose, and the opening scenes drew me in well - a painful birth to open followed by the sentencing of Dejima's previous chief.
Around the halfway point is where the book started to lose me. The initial story is brought to a screeching halt and the bulk of the action shifted away from Dejima and re-centered on a cult of atrocious creeds on a remote mountain, and one I found so implausible and needlessly evil that the realism of the world so painstakingly recreated in the first half of the book was destroyed.
A long non-sequitur follows with the coming of the British to Nagasaki harbor, leading to a confusing climax which is never fully explained and which precipitates a sudden ending that feels tacked on, as though the author suddenly realized that a deadline was drawing near; the last few pages are a coda which feels strange and out of place.
To summarize, I would have enjoyed this book considerably more if it had stuck with the original story instead of pulling a bait-and-switch halfway through the novel; the change in focus and tone left me frustrated by the end and feeling like I was slogging through the book instead of enjoying an engaging story.