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Fragrant Harbour Paperback – 5 Jun 2003

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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: 12.8 x 2.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 502,694 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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'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

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on 26 Dec. 2002
Format: Hardcover
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 By BookAddictUK VINE VOICE on 23 April 2004
Format: Paperback
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 By Michael Barnes on 8 Feb. 2003
Format: Hardcover
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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