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Fragrant Harbor Hardcover – July 8, 2002

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 342 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult; First Edition edition (July 8, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399148663
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399148668
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #312,893 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

The story is sweeping and tumultuous yet told in a mannered, reflective, personal voice.
Lynn Harnett
Lanchester holds the threads of a story together skillfully, but I found the ending of Fragrant Harbour a bit unsatisfactory with too many loose ends.
Patricia Malone
Set in Hong Kong, it presents the stories of four main characters, each of which is an immigrant to this city.
Philip Spires

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

44 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 17, 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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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By gweilo8888 on October 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I read John Lanchester's Fragrant Harbor both from the perspective of someone born and raised in Hong Kong of British descent, and someone extremely interested in the one-time colony's rich history. That combination uniquely qualifies me to appreciate the handful of novels that have dealt with the colony in recent years - and for the most part I have come away thoroughly disappointed.
That is not the case with Fragrant Harbor, however; where most authors show a complete lack of even basic geographic knowledge for the place - let alone how it works - Lanchester obviously knows his material. What he has done with this book is something truly stunning - he has carefully and tightly interwoven the real events, places and names in Hong Kong's history with his fictional characters and a touch of artistic license to create a story that not only entertains, but educates as well.
Fragrant Harbor is wholly satisfying on every level, and I can unreservedly recommend it to anyone interested in a well written story, a gripping read, or the subject matter itself - the lives and interactions of expatriates and refugees, both in Hong Kong and Asia in general.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Lee Armstrong HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 4, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I really enjoyed this book. I liked the sparks of humor, "What do you say to a 900 pound gorilla with a machine gun?" ("Sir.") My appreciation for it grew after I'd finished my reading and was able to look back on it. Granted, it's not until the last 50 pages of the book that you begin to understand why the first section about Dawn Stone is there. Until the reading is complete, the novel seemed disjointed; but afterward, it seemed remarkably unified. I loved how the characters of the first and last sections set in the modern time completed the story of Tom Stewart. The historical novel which is the largest middle section of the book is incredibly fascinating. The unrequited love of Tom for Sister Maria that is never quite articulated but certainly implied is the emotional glue that holds the tale. In the end, Lancaster brings us to a full circle fulfilled in time. As readers, we gain a greater perspective that supercedes the point of view of any of the individual characters which is a remarkable feat. While the criticisms that there are better Hong Kong novels or that he could have more description might be true, I think Lancaster has masterfully done something different. He weaves the reader through the storylines and then pulls us out of them to give a greater sense of wholeness. If angels live centuries in service, then the readers' perspective comes closer to that more eternal viewpoint through this novel which is breathtaking. Bravo!
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Matthew M. Yau on July 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover
John Lanchester's Fragrant Harbor adopts more complexity and formality in comparison to his two previous novels, the painfully humorous and opinionated The Debt to Pleasure and the satirical Mr. Philips. Readers who are familiar with the history of the former British colony will discern Fragrant Harbor a novel set against the historical backdrop of Hong Kong in the twentieth century (1935-1997).
Tom Stewart, the younger son of an inn owner in England, was born with a visceral desire to travel and China had always caught his imagination. In 1935, at the age of 22, he bought a ticket on the Darjeeling in a six-week voyage to Hong Kong via Marseilles, the Mediteranean, Suez Canal and Bombay. As the ship rounded a wide corner onto the Thames, the England shore receded and never did Stewart expect his rash decision to leave the country would alter the course of his life forever.
The arrival to the ship of two Catholic missionaries, Sister Benedicta and Sister Maria, caused an upheaval. When Sister Benedicta and a businessman Marler fell out on each other in a heated debate over the Catholic Church spreading superstition and ignorance, Stewart became a pawn of a wager. The wager stipulated that Sister Maria, a native of Fujian Province, could teach a Stewart wholly ignorant of the Chinese language and raised him to a functional standard in a matter of weeks.
Little did Stewart and Sister Maria know that the wager turned into a cherished friendship and proved its veracity when the two parted to their separate ways. Sister Maria diligently pursued her mission works in Mainland China while Stewart helped Masterson run The Empire Hotel in Hong Kong.
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More About the Author

John Lanchester is the author of the novels The Debt to Pleasure, Mr. Phillips, and Fragrant Harbor; and a memoir, Family Romance. He is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Observer, and The Daily Telegraph, among others. Among several other prizes, including the Whitbread and Hawthornden Awards, Lanchester was awarded the 2008 E.M. Forster Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in London.

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