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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hong Kong exerts a siren's song.
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...
Published on 26 Dec 2002 by Mary Whipple

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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a masterpiece but a good weekend read for 'Gweilos'
As a Brit who has spent several years in Hong Kong, I was looking for a short story with epic ambitions, a historical portrayal of the place I now call home. Well this book certainly delivered, and I enjoyed it more as the story unfolded. On reflection however, the book was let down by the weakness of the opening chapter. Not only was the portrayal of journalist Dawn...
Published on 31 Aug 2004


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hong Kong exerts a siren's song., 26 Dec 2002
By 
Mary Whipple (New England) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Fragrant Harbor (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. Dawn Stone, an ambitious journalist whose career in Hong Kong is encapsulated for fifty pages at the beginning of the novel (a mystifying digression, it seems, at first), plays a role at the end of the novel as the complexities of business life during the turnover become threatening.
Filled with local color and the kind of detail accessible only to someone who has grown up in a place, Lanchester's novel vitalizes Hong Kong's life in both its glories and its sleaziness. The characters illustrate the attitudes common to the periods in which they appear, and the novel, which never loses sight of its goal to tell a good story, is fun to read, a big novel in scope and ambition. Mary Whipple
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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
By 
BookAddictUK "BookAddictUK" (London) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (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.
The plot is subtlety and steadily delivered, with just enough pace tomaintain interest, but despite using the voices of the characters torelate it, it is difficult not to be aware of the author's controllinginfluence throughout. The prose is pitch perfect and the ending satisfyingbut the restrained characterisation and overly control plot preventFragrant Harbour from being the novel that it might have been. Lancesteris capable of a masterpiece. This isn't it, quite.
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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
This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars So much to keep your interest, 20 Jun 2007
This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (Paperback)
I had never read one of John Lanchester's books before, but was attracted to 'Fragrant Harbour' as it had Hong Kong at the centre of the novel. Having spent time there, I found the descriptions of HK to be just as I remember the place, but even if I hadn't seen it for myself the writing is so good that it would have been easy to imagine the street scenes for myself. The story covers the recent history of Hong Kong, from the 1930s to just beyond the handover, and is mostly told through the eyes of Tom, a Brit who moved there as a young man and became a successful hotelier. His relationship with Maria is intriguing (if at times a little incredible), but it was his general descriptions of life as a Briton in Hong Kong that I found the most interesting. Like other reviewers, I felt the character of Dawn Stone to be a little unnecessary - she could easily have been introduced at the end of the book without detracting from the story - but this is a minor grumble. I very much enjoyed this, and will be looking for further books by John Lanchester in the future.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A global idea, 25 May 2008
This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (Paperback)
Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester is a novel that is hard to praise too highly. Set in Hong Kong, it presents the stories of four main characters, each of which is an immigrant to this city. Behind them at all times is a culture that rules their lives, sets the limits of what might be possible, but is always hard for outsiders to penetrate. That the culture affects all aspects of their lives, however, is a given.

Each character pursues self-interest, the different eras they inhabit defining and characterising the different stages of the city's development. Thus we see its pre-war emergence from a dirty nineteenth century right through to its contemporary role as a driving force of free market globalisation.

When Tom Stewart, on his way to Honk Kong in the 1930s, accepts the challenge of a wager, he changes the direction of lives, not just is own. A random, trivial suggestion suggests he might learn Cantonese in the thirty days of a shared voyage to new lives. His tutor is Sister Maria, a Chinese nun who proves to be an enlightened, motivating teacher. Tom Stewart learns the language, wins the bet and begins a relationship with things Chinese that will sustain him through war, peace, economic growth, professional life, clandestine activity and property speculation.

Dawn Stone, previously Doris, hails from Blackpool, but she makes it to Hong Kong. She has a career in the media, having gone through the once well trodden paths of learning her trade on provincial newspapers and then graduating to London. She makes it good and proper in the public relations business that booms out east. She seems to have few scruples and is ruled by pragmatism. She is not alone.

Michael Ho is a young businessman. He has a vision of an air conditioned future that is on a knife edge between success and failure. He is sub-contracted from Germans who operate north of London to avail themselves of the country's more flexible approach to labour. He has a rip-off sub-contracting factory in Ho Chi Minh City. He is Hong Kong based, but from Fujian, and thus also an immigrant. He has recently relocated his family to Sydney. Interests in Guangzhou will determine his fate. Mountains are high and the emperor is far away, his contacts tell him, so practices are mainly local. He must learn. He must raise capital. It is perhaps true everywhere in this global economy, where Hertfordshire taxi drivers remonstrate in Urdu and curse in English.

And it is pragmatism that rules the place. As globalisation becomes an issue, the place is the world, not just Hong Kong. In this new world which appears to be built on the professedly liberal economic ideas that have underpinned the colony's free-for-all, these immigrants to the place make their lives, make their fortunes in their own ways. But still there is a constant in that they can only succeed within the protective umbrella shade of bigger interests than their own. In a city state that grew out of an illicit and illegal trade in opium as British merchants and adventurers became international drug dealers to vulnerable China, people with wealth beyond measure push people around the chessboards of their interests, occasionally enthroning a pawn they might even have previously sacrificed.

As in A Debt To Pleasure, John Lanchester has us enter the world of an anti-hero. The character that drives events in Fragrant Harbour is but a name for most of the book. He is cold, calculating, driven by raw, undiluted self-interest. In this he is perhaps no different from anyone else. It's just that he is more successful at it, and thus less willing to risk that success. And he prevails. The emperor is far away. The mountains are high. In his case, he is the emperor and he owns the mountains. Power lives in pockets and, in a globalised economy, we are all immigrants, even in our homes. What a superb book!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A measured & stylish novel which just missed the mark, 19 Oct 2003
By 
BookAddictUK "BookAddictUK" (London) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (Hardcover)
Fragrant Harbour has an ambitious concept – to chronicle Hong Kong from the 1930s up to and beyond the 1997 handover of the British-govern economic miracle to China. Lanchester’s literary conceit attempts to do this through three characters, each with their own distinct voice but with intertwined stories. By far the most engaging section is that devoted to Thomas Stewart, who as a young man sets out from his family home in Faversham, Kent to seek his fortune in the East, and the story of the close and compelling relationship which develops between Tom and the young Chinese 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 two previous novels, but there remains a certain emotional detachment from the struggles and successes of the characters he has created. Through Tom, a typically restrained yet warm and likeable, English, Lanchester shows that he can develop a character with depth. This makes it all the more frustrating that other characters remain flatly two dimensional, somehow oddly 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 portrait of Hong Kong itself, perhaps in reality the central character. Superbly detailed, evocative and atmospheric, Hong Kong emerges as seething port, with layers upon layers of society sitting uncomfortably on the cusp between Eastern and Western cultures. It is no surprise to learn that Lanchester was born and brought up in the fragrant harbour of Hong Kong, and his deep affection for the exotic, complex city is inescapable on every page.
The plot is subtlety and steadily delivered, with just enough pace to maintain interest, but despite using the voices of the characters to relate it, it is difficult not to be aware of the author’s controlling influence throughout. The prose is pitch perfect and the ending satisfying but the restrained characterisation and overly control plot prevent Fragrant Harbour from being the novel that it might have been. Lancester is capable of a masterpiece. This isn’t it, quite.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a masterpiece but a good weekend read for 'Gweilos', 31 Aug 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (Paperback)
As a Brit who has spent several years in Hong Kong, I was looking for a short story with epic ambitions, a historical portrayal of the place I now call home. Well this book certainly delivered, and I enjoyed it more as the story unfolded. On reflection however, the book was let down by the weakness of the opening chapter. Not only was the portrayal of journalist Dawn Stone unconvincing, it also proved to be neither relevent nor closely connected to all that followed. I presume this section was intended as a means of initiating readers into the unfamiliar world of Hong Kong, but was it really necessary? My advice would be skim through the first 70 pages and focus on the more juicy core of the book; namely the exploits of Tom Stewart and his lasting relationship with Chinese nun Maria, spanning several decades of Hong Kong history. There is certainly enough here to keep you turning the pages, some rich narative, historical and social insights, well-timed twists and turns. I ended the book with a fresh perspective on Hong Kong, its people and its complexities.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Starts well but goes downhill, 10 Jan 2010
This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (Paperback)
The book starts off promisingly but quickly becomes 'the life of Tom Stewart' with several one dimensional stereotypes thrown in to facilitate the story. Dawn Stone must have taken all of 3 seconds to come up with and her role in the story is pointless. I don't understand how Matthew Ho can run any business as the author has given him the thought process of a 5 year old.
The story relies on a 'twist' to bring things together. However, the twist is actually the fact that the author simply forgot to mention a crucial detail earlier in the story. From that point on, the book quickly becomes an anti-climax and tales off as if the author has become bored.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant and interesting, 29 Oct 2009
By 
CJ Craig (UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (Paperback)
For anyone with knowledge of Hong Kong or the Far East this book can be filled in with your own experiences. If you have not encountered the Far East personally then this is an easy and enjoyable read. This is a sort of old-fanshioned novel told in a very readable way. Good writing, interesting story (although the ending is a bit so-so)and a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Not shocking in any way and perhaps somewhat predictable but all in all a good, solid novel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great book, 9 Feb 2014
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This review is from: Fragrant Harbour (Kindle Edition)
This reminds me so much of the Hong Kong I first knew in the mid-60s, well written, beautifully observed and well detailed. It was a pleasure to read from first to last page.
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