It is 1935 and Tom Stewart, a young Englishman with an almost visceral longing for adventure, has bought himself a cheap ticket to the complex, corrupt, and corrupting world of Hong Kong. Aboard ship, he becomes the pawn in a wager between a bluff businessman and a Chinese missionary nun, who bets she can teach him Cantonese on the six-week voyage out. What begins as friendship turns into solace and then a passion that only individual vows can remit.
Fragrant Harbor takes the reader from the intrigue and double-dealing of the 1930s through the savagery of the Japanese occupation to contemporary Hong Kong, crossroads of international trade and finance and waystation for laundering the dirty money of warlords, drug runners, and Chinese triads. The novel ends three years after the Mainland takeover, with Hong Kong as greedy, corrupt, and corrupting as when Stewart first landed there.
Writing with the same fine style and observant eye that distinguished his previous novels, John Lanchester depicts a tumultuous time and place and then peoples it with extraordinary characters. The result is a novel that proves he is amongour most versatile and talented contemporary novelists-indeed, as The New York Times wrote, "Lanchester is a commanding writer."
Two brilliant novels in one, John Lanchester's Fragrant Harbor
presents a traditional colonial narrative set in the 1930s and 1940s inside a larger, dizzyingly complex tale of big business at the turn of the 21st century. Lanchester's main character, Tom Stewart, is a Kentish lad who journeys to the exotic Far East in 1935, just as the commercial prospects of Hong Kong are becoming apparent. On his voyage out, Tom is made the object of a curious bet between a Chinese nun and language teacher, Sister Maria, and an anti-Catholic English businessman. As a result, he becomes proficient in Cantonese with only six weeks' study. This skill, unusual in an Englishman, is the making of Tom's career. Although they part on bad terms, Sister Maria remains a shimmering figure on the periphery of Tom's life in Hong Kong, and their one thought as the Japanese invade the region is to protect each other.
Lanchester was raised in Hong Kong (his grandparents had settled there in the 1930s and been interned by the Japanese during the war), and his insider view of the place is about as far from the small, lyrical Western-Asian novels of recent years as can be imagined. The broad scope and jerking pace of Fragrant Harbor can be disconcerting, but they vividly convey the shifting fortunes and alliances of this crowded, corrupting, and much-contested territory. --Regina Marler
Fragrant Harbour is the story of four people whose intertwined lives span Asia?s last 70 years. Tom Stewart leaves England just before it is hit by the Great Depression 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 out from England; their friendship spans decades and changes both their lives. 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, and who is now facing his own difficulties, and opportunities, in the twenty-first century.
The complacency of colonial life in the 1930s; the horrors of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War; the post-war boom and transformation of Hong Kong into a laboratory of capitalism at its most cut-throat; the growth of the Triads; 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. The novel?s shape and scale, its emotional power and beauty, make it John Lanchester?s finest book to date.
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