David Mitchell’s hugely enjoyable new novel begins on the tiny fan-shaped island of Dejima, the farthest-flung outpost of the Dutch East Indies Company, just outside Nagasaki. It’s 1799 and the island, no bigger than a football pitch, is home to a handful of Dutchmen, the only Westerners permitted to trade in Japan. Only the highest ranks can ever leave the island and cross into Nagasaki. The lifeline for all these men is the ship that arrives once a year from Company headquarters in Batavia, Java, bringing goods to trade, news of the outside world and the chance of escape.
Populating this claustrophobic community are adventurers, seadogs and survivors, nearly all of whom are out to swindle the company and line their own pockets by any means possible. Into this mix Mitchell throws one honest man: Jacob de Zoet, an earnest young parson’s son with flaming red hair