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.