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Fragrant Harbour

In 1996, John Lanchester came out with a cheeky murder story - not a mystery, because it was narrated by the murderer himself - that attracted remarkably favorable first notices for a first novel; some time later, something that I read somewhere suggested that the publisher's elaborate press junkets, always involving elaborate gourmet dinners - Lanchester's anti-hero was a culinary expert - had, to put it crudely, paid off. The Debt to Pleasure was a suitably delicious read. But it was an entertainment. So, in a grimmer key, was Mr Phillips, Lanchester's second novel, the first-person narrative account of a day in the life of an accountant, involuntarily retired, who has not yet told his family that he is without a job. Where The Debt to Pleasure was toothsome, Mr Phillips was deadpan. The word for Fragrant Harbour, Mr Lanchester's third book, is sweeping.

Anyone who has been to Hong Kong (much less lived there) will probably find Fragrant Harbour very interesting; it is specific enough about local details to thrill one's I-knew-that neurons. ("I had heard about the landing at Kai Tak airport, but I still couldn't believe my eyes." Now that the airport is on Lantau, and incoming planes no longer appear to their passengers to be about to rip through the rooftops of Kowloon, the cool factor of having landed at Kai Tak has been curdled somewhat by an old-fart factor.) Although I'm hardly a well-traveled fellow, I did visit Hong Kong in 1994, so I can't assess the charms that this novel will have for readers who haven't had the pleasure. My guess is that literate readers will find in Fragrant Harbour many of the guilty and forbidden pleasures of the 'big' novels of James A. Michener and James Clavell. Forbidden pleasures because those writers' books are so poorly written and generally awful. Guilty pleasures because the clear resolution of a just-so story replaces the elusive complexity of great fiction. There is no bad writing in 'Fragrant Harbour,' but there is plenty of neatness. But if the plot is a tissue of improbabilities, with key characters interacting through the passing decades, knowingly and not, like the gracefully twisting trunks of a trained ficus, then at least Mr Lanchester has the grace not to dwell on his coincidences. Still:

I was walking back to the barracks one day for a lie-down after doing some slow-motion weeding in the vegetable patch when I saw a figure I knew I knew but couldn't quite place. That was a familiar sensation in camp, when people were so physically changed. This woman was coming out of the door in front of me. She was wearing a clean flower-print dress which had apparently been taken in to compensate for lost weight. Something about the purposeful angle of her head and her walk was familiar. She was carrying a bucket in the crook of her arm as if it were a handbag.
"Mrs Marler?" I said.

The narrator here is Tom Stewart, a Kentish expat who has risen from modest origins to moderate eminence largely because of a wager made by Mrs Marler's husband - for the woman is indeed Beryl Marler - on the boat going out, ten years earlier. (At the moment, they find themselves in Stanley Camp, where the occupying Japanese interned civilians during the Second World War.) On the voyage out, Mr Marler, a philistine from Yorkshire, bet that fellow-passenger Sister Maria, Chinese-born nun, couldn't teach young Tom Stewart Cantonese in the six weeks' passage. Well, guess what. I'm the first to concede that it's a small world, but my experience also insists that the people one runs across in life are rarely repeatedly fateful. The aroma of formula hangs heavy over the page when, a few chapters later, Beryl Marler becomes an important investor in Tom Stewart's swelling prosperity. It's as if five or six important people make Hong Kong tick. SVP.  

Don't get me wrong: I couldn't put Fragrant Harbour down (I read it in a day). But I suspected, particularly during the somewhat directionless final section, which threatened to be the diary of a business deal, that a second reading would show the story of Fragrant Harbour to be somewhat, but overtly, ridiculous, and that indeed the author's laughter - not with, but at, the reader - could be heard between many of the lines. Care about these characters at your own risk. (Note to other readers: my discomfort began to be a nuisance in Part Three, which runs for all of two pages.) John Lanchester appears to be a novelist capable of everything save trusting his own humanity. (September 2002)

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