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A tale of love, murder, intrigue, and cultural identity, Mitchell takes the form of the historical novel and worries it like a chew-toy. Yet, rather than destroy the genre, he embellishes it, heaps poetry onto research, gazing with a precise and incisive eye back into the past. This is Nagasaki, the foreign outpost on the artificial island of Dejima, from where Dutch sailors and merchants trade with the Japanese. Mitchell’s novel transports the reader to early 19th- century Japan in a beautifully crafted prose time machine.

If I include the sub-subtitle to this extraordinary book, the reader may get some idea of its scope: “With Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines.” Vollmann explores the role of gender and beauty in all of the above — but being Vollmann, he deviates into Norse poetry, Sappho and modern art. Intriguing.

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