Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester
The most recent book to be read in my book group was Frangrant Harbour by John Lanchester. It was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. John Lanchester is the author of four novels and three books of non-fiction. He was born in Germany and moved to Hong Kong. He studied in UK. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and was awarded the 2008 E.M. Forster Award. He lives now in London.
Fragrant Harbour is, as its title would suggest, based in Hong Kong. It is a fictional story reflecting the history of Hong Kong since the 1930s told through the interlinked stories of four very different protagonists, full of rich descriptions and colourful characters, who reflect the changing nature of the society there. It gives an overview of the city’s history while telling a story as well. I did learn a great deal about Hong Kong from the 1930s through the 1990’s, but I did not find the story compelling. Reading Fragrant Harbour was a bit of a plod.
The tale is told through the voices of four different characters- a young woman from England who’s climbing hand over fist up the career ladder, a Chinese businessman on the brink of failure, a nun, and a man from England who manages and then owns his own hotel. Their stories all intertwine, and the choices they ultimately make raise questions about integrity, responsibility and compromise. Some of the characters are more well-developed than others, but Lanchester seems to shy away from digging deeply into the psyche of any of them, which left me feeling unsatisfied and made me wonder what I was missing since novel was included on the New York Times Notable Books list for 2002.
A long section of Fragrant Harbour reads like a history lesson of Hong Kong. Then, later the plot twist involving two of the major characters seemed to me to contain two main issues: firstly, it doesn’t really ring true for the characters and secondly, it seems to me to be an example of the author keeping information from the reader just to create a twist. That is cheating! This final section, therefore, is probably the weakest and drags the book down. It reads rather like a slightly stilted report of a business deal. The most interesting part would be how the grandfather reacts to the new business deal, but the book does not deal with this.
Fragrant Harbour did not seem to be so much about the Chinese experience of Hong Kong but how the Western world viewed it. Perhaps it would work better for anyone who has lived in Hong Kong, but it was not a book that I particularly enjoyed and on the basis of this, I would not seek out other books by John Lanchester.