Summary and book reviews of Fragrant Harbor by John Lanchester

Fragrant Harbor

by John Lanchester

Fragrant Harbor
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 352 pages
    Sep 2003, 352 pages

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Book Summary

Set in Hong Kong, from the intrigue and double-dealing of the 1930s, through the savagery of the Japanese occupation, to the year 2000, this novel depicts a tumultuous time and place, peopled with extraordinary characters.

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 -- the crossroads of international trade and finance and the waystation for laundering the dirty money of warlords, drug runners, and Chinese triads. The novel ends three years after the Mainland Chinese 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 among our most versatile and talented contemporary novelists.

As The New York Times wrote, "Lanchester is a commanding writer."

Part One : Dawn Stone

Chapter One

When I was a teenager I used to play a game called Count the Lies. The idea was pretty simple: I just made a mental note of every time I heard someone tell a porky, and kept a running total. It was a one-player game, a form of solitaire. Some days I started playing the game after some more than usually gross piece of hypocrisy or cant at school, some days it would be triggered by something I saw on TV or heard on the radio or read in a paper or magazine or book. Most of the time, though, what started me off on Count the Lies was my parents. It wasn't so much any specific thing they said as the whole family atmosphere. It was the air we--even that "we" was a kind of lie--breathed. Some days the lies I counted began with "Good morning" (why? what's good about it?), carried on through "We want you back by half past eleven" (no you don't, you don't want me back at all), and finished with "Good night" (the lie here being: Oh, so you ...

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Media Reviews

The New York Post

John Lanchester delivers his third impressive novel in a row . . . a robust, decades-spanning saga about lovers in Hong Kong.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In his rich, bold new novel, Fragrant Harbor, Lanchester has done it again, bringing his singular narrative ease to a historical story that sniffs of a quiet, personalized epic, but does so beautifully . . .His sentences glide across the page with a leisure that disguises their deeper significance. Into all of this luxuriant language Lanchester sneaks in sly humor, moral dilemmas and tightly wound universal emotions.

The New York Times Book Review

Fragrant Harbor is not an enormous novel, but it feels like one - it is bursting with ideas. Lanchester takes on almost every major theme and succeeds with most of them: race, class, love, war, the fall of rulers and the rise of the ruled. The novels sharpest insights are into the nature of success, its best passages careful dissections of how a disenfranchised community of poor refugees turned the colony into one of the richest societies in the world.

Publishers Weekly

Lanchester's previous, prize-winning novels, The Debt to Pleasure and Mr. Phillips, excelled in cleverness but didn't hint at the depth of feeling and narrative drive that he manifests here.

Booklist - Elsa Gaztambide

Lanchester weaves a circular tale of lives that unintentionally intermingle to produce life-changing events, and his vivid descriptions of the city and culture bring them to life for the senses to savor.

Kirkus Reviews

Extraordinarily knowledgeable, ingeniously woven, and powerfully engrossing a portrait of nothing less than an entire piece of the world and most of a century.

Author Blurb Roberta Rubin, The Bookstall at Chestnut Court
Lanchester, who wrote the wonderful Debt to Pleasure, has done it again. Set in Hong Kong from 1935 to the present, he follows a man traveling on a ship to start a new life. Add in the story of a young Chinese missionary nun, and there begins a trail of intrigue dealing with crime, money and the Hong Kong undercurrents of modern business. I just loved it.

Reader Reviews

Michael R. Tomkins

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 ...   Read More

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