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Fragrant Harbour [Paperback]

John Lanchester
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 Jun 2003

'It's Hong Kong,' she said. 'Heung gong. Fragrant harbour.'

Fragrant Harbour is the story of four people whose intertwined lives span Asia's last seventy years. Tom Stewart leaves England to seek his fortune, and finds it in running Hong Kong's best hotel. Sister Maria is a beautiful and uncompromising Chinese nun whom Stewart meets on the boat. Dawn Stone is an English journalist who becomes the public face of money and power and big business. Matthew Ho is a young Chinese entrepreneur whose life has been shaped by painful choices made long before his birth.

The complacency of colonial life in the 1930s; the horrors of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War; the post-war boom and the handover of the city to the Chinese - all these are present in Fragrant Harbour, an epic novel of one of the world's great cities.

Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; New edition edition (5 Jun 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 057121469X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571214693
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 401,166 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

In his new novel Fragrant Harbour John Lanchester, as in his previous books, shows an impressionist's gift for adopting different voices for his narrator. The moral hedonist Tarquin Winot who tells his story in The Debt to Pleasure and the downsized suburbanite whose inner monologues provide the material for Mr Phillips could hardly be more contrasting characters, yet Lanchester makes both equally convincing.

In Fragrant Harbour much of the story is told in the words of Tom Stewart, a young Englishman who sails to Hong Kong in the 1930s and ends up spending the rest of his long life there. The voice of Stewart--reserved, humane and understated--is as finely achieved as those in the earlier novels. Through his eyes we see Hong Kong's 20th-century history. The class-ridden and racially divided society of the 1930s is given the brutal awakening of the Japanese occupation. After the war, the old Hong Kong disappears and the city is transformed by economic boom and entrepreneurial energy. The approaching return of the city to mainland China brings its own problems, anxieties and upheavals.

Against this backdrop, Stewart's life, and particularly his relationship with Maria, a Chinese nun he first meets as he is travelling out from England in 1935, unfolds. Lanchester intertwines personal histories and the city's history with great skill, showing how the past lives on, even in a city as resolutely modern as Hong Kong. The narrator of the book's last section, a young businessman called Matthew Ho, may be the embodiment of the new Hong Kong but, as he knows himself, his life has been decisively marked by the old. --Nick Rennison --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


'There's a depth and emotional candour here that, long after you have finished the book, is hard to forget... Fragrant Harbour is really a love letter to Hong Kong, redolent with the bright shine of romance and nostalgia for the indefinable essence of a place.' Observer 'Provides both the detail and panorama of a fascinating city... it has a cracking emotional thrust.' Financial Times

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hong Kong exerts a siren's song. 26 Dec 2002
For anyone who has read Lanchester's other novels (the fiendishly clever Debt to Pleasure and the Walter Mittyish Mr. Phillips), this novel will come as a big surprise. Far more serious, complex, and traditional a novel than either of these others, it might even be considered old-fashioned in its grand-scale story-telling. Concerning itself with three generations of people who have succumbed to the siren's song of Hong Kong as a financial capital--and sometimes found her to be a fickle mistress--the novel is as much about the city and the personal connections one brings to business as it is about individuals.
"Longevity can be a form of spite," Tom Stewart announces at the beginning of the novel. Stewart, an old man at the end of the century, has spent almost sixty years working in the former colony. On his way to Hong Kong in the early '30's, Stewart was taught Chinese on shipboard by Sister Maria, with whom he remained in contact as they both began their vocations--he as a hotel manager and she as a missionary to the remote countryside--and throughout their years in Hong Kong. Enduring the upheavals of colonialism, the Chinese revolution, the Japanese occupation and subsequent World War II atrocities, and the postwar rise of drug trafficking, graft, corruption, and the triads, Sister Maria and Stewart separately experience the myriad influences affecting both everyday life and business life in China and Hong Kong. Their different responses to these influences reflect both the tumult and vibrancy of the community, and give a broad scope to Lanchester's vision.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An engaging novel which just misses the mark 23 April 2004
Fragrant Harbour has an ambitious concept - to chronicle Hong Kong fromthe 1930s up to and beyond the 1997 handover of the British-governeconomic miracle to China. Lanchester's literary conceit attempts to dothis through three characters, each with their own distinct voice but withintertwined stories. By far the most engaging section is that devoted toThomas Stewart, who as a young man sets out from his family home inFaversham, Kent to seek his fortune in the East, and the story of theclose and compelling relationship which develops between Tom and the youngChinese nun he meets on the ship on the way out.
A novel told with restraint and a surprisingly consistent tone and pace.Lanchester has broken away from the pretentiousness that marred his twoprevious novels, but there remains a certain emotional detachment from thestruggles and successes of the characters he has created. Through Tom, atypically restrained yet warm and likeable, English, Lanchester shows thathe can develop a character with depth. This makes it all the morefrustrating that other characters remain flatly two dimensional, somehowoddly hollow. Dawn Stone, the London journalist with whom the novel opens,is little more than stereotypical.
There is however real quality here. It is in the exquisite prose portraitof Hong Kong itself, perhaps in reality the central character. Superblydetailed, evocative and atmospheric, Hong Kong emerges as seething port,with layers upon layers of society sitting uncomfortably on the cuspbetween Eastern and Western cultures. It is no surprise to learn thatLanchester was born and brought up in the fragrant harbour of Hong Kong,and his deep affection for the exotic, complex city is inescapable onevery page.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great Hong Kong Novel ? 8 Feb 2003
Hong Kong is the most frustrating, extraordinary, elusive and enigmatic place. It is an impossible blend of material and mystical, of oriental and western, old and new. Most of all Hong Kong is (perhaps that should be was) utterly uncompromising.
There has never been a Great Hong Kong Novel (or even film) and this isn't it but John Lanchester's Fragrant Harbour begins to show you that one could be written. It's not great but it's definitely very good. Lanchester realises that there isn't one Hong Kong, there are many. Everyone has their own personal Hong Kong and they get very possessive about it (look at the other reviews). So the trick Lanchester pulls is to knit together four personal Hong Kong's, four characters, four perspectives, and create as good an impression and explanation of 20th century Hong Kong as you'll find.
The four characters - Journalist Dawn Stone, Hotelier Tom Stewart, Nun Sister Maria and businessman Matthew Ho - each have a section to tell their story. This keeps the narrative fresh and driven and the true plot is hidden from view as we enjoy the experiences of the protagonists. Then slowly, gradually the real story emerges to create the one view, the real story and the real lesson.
Lanchester writes well. He pulls you through the sections, the history, the characters with real purpose. He is a sympathetic, even loving, observer of colonial attitudes from both English and Chinese sides. The structure is idiosyncratic with Tom Stewart, admittedly the most sympathetic character, given the greater part of the book while Sister Maria, the most provocative character, is given woefully little space.
It works. You get five Hong Kong's in one book. One each from the four characters and then the whole, which is Lanchester's own view of a place he clearly loves.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Read
Good book with interesting characters who fit well into Hong Kongs history slightly disappointed with the ending felt there could been more detail regarding the Sister's story.
Published 2 months ago by Andrew Dycher
5.0 out of 5 stars Fragrant indeed.
I fascinating book detailing life in Hong and the surrounding area from 1930s to 1980s. The contrasting lives of the principal and a Nun, grandfather and grandson allow for an... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jillian R. Cole
4.0 out of 5 stars Well researched and evocative of times gone by!
Having read a few other John Lanchester Books, Fragrant Harbour does not disappoint. It evokes times past with modern day twists while telling a worth whole story!! Read more
Published 3 months ago by JWP
4.0 out of 5 stars Perspectives of Hong Kong
Lanchester brings the story of Tom Stewart to us as both the tale's narrator and as a resourceful protagonist who charts his course through life in Hong Kong and the changes... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Kym Hamer
3.0 out of 5 stars Hong Kong...past and present
After reading Mr Lanchester's superb 'Debt to Pleasure', I couldn't resist another of his works. This is well-written but not in the same league. Read more
Published 4 months ago by sally tarbox
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth the time
I was a bit up in the air about the English female journalist's part in the story, but her actions and involvement was tied up really well in the end. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Georgette
4.0 out of 5 stars Abrupt ending
Reading it on my Kindle I was not taking notice of the % in the corner, it came as a shock to turn to the next page & realise I had reached the end. Disappointing. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Pat Franklin
5.0 out of 5 stars great book, unusual style.
having lived and worked in hong kong for 2 years in late seventies earlie eighties, this book brought back many memories. Read more
Published 5 months ago by susan walker
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic
Read this after reading the two Tan Twang Eng novels set in the far east.

All of them are totally brilliant. Read more
Published 5 months ago by B. Innes
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!
Every bit as good as Capital which I also loved. He has a way of getting inside each character with a change of 'voice'
Published 5 months ago by English teacher
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