No, Dubai did not invent novelty-shaped man-made islands: David Mitchell’s ample new novel is set in 1799 and mostly on Dejima, a fan-shaped artificial isle in the bay of Nagasaki which was the site of the Dutch East India Company. The book takes the scenic route through the unrequited love story of Orito Aibagawa (a samurai’s daughter turned midwife) and the clerk of the title, a terminally honest parson’s son who will overcome double-dealing Dutchmen, evil mystic Lord Abbot and a fully armed British frigate before his tribulations are at an end.
If you’re a long-standing groupie of this Granta-springboarded, Booker-shortlisted author, you may wonder why the writer of brilliant interlinked millennial story collection Ghostwritten and the universally praised Cloud Atlas has turned away from such bold, discomfiting territory. Historical fiction has great armchair appeal and is enjoying its limelight right now, but Mitchell’s writing doesn’t seem suited to this costume-heavy genre: his wonderfully clear narrative voice has its feng shui cluttered up by period furniture, and some sentences groan with the effort of scene setting.
But, after a slow beginning, his storytelling skills hook you in. This has everything you’d hope for from a rollicking read, including a baddie who can kill animals with a glance. This is a book that (unlike its subtler predecessors) is powered by conflict between goodies and baddies rather than big ideas. Ultimately, it’s more M M Kaye than JG Ballard, absorbing but a tad conventional.