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
From Publishers Weekly
Chance meetings that reverberate for seven decades and affect many lives drive the plot in British writer Lanchester's latest novel, a suspenseful and poignant triumph of storytelling and an atmospheric portrait of a fabled city. In 1935, young Englishman Tom Stewart sails to Hong Kong in search of adventure. During the six-week voyage, he is taught Cantonese by a young Chinese missionary nun, Sister Maria. Upon his arrival in Hong Kong, his proficiency in the language leads to a career as a hotel manager. When the Japanese invade, Sister Maria urges him to flee with her, but he's given his word that he'll work as an undercover agent for the British. After the war, which Tom spends mostly in the notorious Stanley prison, his life and Sister Maria's continue to entwine. Then she disappears, a victim of the crime triad run by the corrupt Wo family. Tom s recital of these events, brimming with wartime intrigue and with an undercurrent of repressed emotion, constitutes the main part of the narrative; it is bracketed by the only marginally less lethal conflicts of modern business, as introduced in the meeting, on an airplane in 1995, of Dawn Stone, an enterprising English journalist, and entrepreneur Matthew Ho, whose identity becomes clear in the last section of the novel. Lanchester steeps the narrative in vivid detail (having been raised in Hong Kong, he is intimately acquainted with the city), and the subtheme of money and its ultimate power over human destiny permeates the story. The reader s only cavil may be the ebbing of tension at the conclusion, which is narrated by the reticent Matthew. Yet the final irony, when it comes, is both bitter and sweet, an apt analogy to Heung gong, the fragrant harbor that smells of corruption and greed.
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