A good, and exhaustively researched historical novel, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as any of Mitchell's others, despite a life-and-death opening. Indeed, life and death is a continuing theme, both of individuals (a major character is a midwife) and of culture and empire.
Jacob de Zoet is an ambitious and uppstanding young clerk. In 1799, he arrives in Dejima, the Dutch concession in Japan, and the only port which traded with the rest of the world. He has five years to prove himself an acceptable son-in-law and is honourable, empathetic, clever and keen to learn. However, he has to negotiate the complexities of Japanese etiquette and Dutch-Japanese relations, as well as plots, embezzlement and love, whilst retaining his principles and furthering his ambitions. Mitchell's knowledge of and love for Japan shines through (he lived there for several years, and his wife is Japanese).
The sights, sounds, smells and whole atmosphere of Dejima are very vivid, but I found the much shorter passages set in a mountain shrine/convent more compelling plot-wise. However, that is more of a reflection of my tastes than Mitchell's writing.
I love the importance Mitchell attaches to language, both by demonstrating powerful imagery and more explicit praise of the power of the written word, such as "An ink-brush... is a skeleton key for a prisoner's mind". The book also explores issues of translation: the mischief to be had, along with the difficulties it can present.
Another fascinating digression was a chapter as a first-person but unsentimental examination of the problems of being a slave (damned if you do and damned if you don't). He owns nothing except for his thoughts, and even then can cause problems. "The word 'my' brings pleasure. The word 'my' brings pain. These are true words for masters as well as slaves."
Some favourite images:
"A cacophony of frogs detonates."
"Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall. A hairy beggar kneeling over a puddle of vomit turns out to be a dog."
"The yeasty moon is caged in his half Japanese half Dutch window... glass panes melt the moonlight; paper panes filter it, to chalk dust."
"Light bleeds in around the casements: Jacob navigates the archipelago of stains across the low wooden ceiling."
Someone "savours his victory under an ill-fitting mask of empathy."
"An Oriental typhoon possesses a sentience and menace. Daylight is bruised."
"Birds are notched on the low sky. Autumn is aging."
"The weaverless loom of fortune" - is that godless predestination?
Someone's "face speaks of fatherlessness, name-calling and resilience".
"A face like his belongs on a cathedral gutter."
"The Oriental rain is fine as lace on the sailors' leathern faces."
I have read all Mitchell's books and I think this is the only one that does not have any explicit links to any of the others. The nearest I spotted was perhaps a nod at the title of his best-known work, "West to East, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds" and the fact that Jacob is somewhat similar character to Adam Ewing in "Cloud Atlas" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23326332).