Jacob hires on to the Dutch East India Company for a term of five years, hoping to make his fortune and be worthy of his girlfriend at home, whose father insists on his going out to make his way before giving away his daughter. Jacob winds up at Dejima, where his honesty and diligence as a clerk are clearly orthogonal to the way business was run there. He is surrounded by a Star Wars Bar of Dutchmen, Americans, Malay, Indonesians, Germans and the always watchful Japanese interpreters. The most decent of the cast is a Dr. Marius who is famous among the Japanese for the effectiveness of his medical treatments, so famous that the local administrator allows his daughter to study with Dr. Marius. Orito--the daughter--is thought to be not marriageable due to a burn on the side of her face, and so is permitted to take up the trade of midwife. Jacob sees her differently and falls in love, but it is a love separated by cultures and by locked and guarded gates.
Orito is eventually sold into a nunnery by her stepmother upon the death of her father, breaking Jacob's heart. The nunnery is a place of horror to Orito, where the nuns' primary job is to produce the children of the monks, something she cannot bear. Her story comes to Jacob (in a Japanese scroll), and he spends considerable time (illegally) learning Japanese so that he might unlock the mystery of her order. Jacob's place in the trading compound also descends, as his honesty brings him into direct conflict with his superiors. Eventually, his bravery in defending Dejima from the attack of a British Navy frigate catches the eye of powerful Japanese officials, one of whom he is able to convince help him spring Orito. The rest, as they say, would spoil the story.
The writing is beautiful, the story is tight and well-told, the history is interesting and the characters are likable and well developed. This is a world that virtually none of us knows about, and David Mitchell does a great job describing it to us.