Reviewed by James Wilson
‘Fragrant Harbour’ is ‘Hong Kong’ in English, and perhaps the most compelling protagonist in Lanchester’s 2002 book is the city itself, ostensibly only the setting for this sprawling historical novel, but, in fact, its primary focus. Published 5 years after the handover to China, Fragrant Harbour chronicles the complex and layered history of Hong Kong from 1935, when the actual protagonist, and lead narrator (of four), Tom Stewart, a twenty-two-year old Englishman, slakes his thirst for adventure by buying passage to the romantic Eastern port, up to the turn of the 21st century. By novel’s end, Stewart, aged 87, has retired from a long career managing two hotels, one on Hong Kong Island and the other across Victoria Harbour in Kowloon, and is living quietly on Cheung Chau island, a short ferry ride from the now-megalopolis of 7 million. In the intervening seven decades he and his adopted home have lived through much: the rise of Maoism and the outbreak of civil war in China; World War II, and the invasion and brutal occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese; the resumption of the civil war in 1945; the influx of refugees escaping communist China in 1949; the Cold War (“good for business”- at this time, 1953, when, “The Hong Kong Bank building, a dozen or so stories high, still dominated the middle of town.”); the arrival in force of the CIA and MI6 (every second new ‘journalist’ was a spy); Vietnam and the boat people; the Cultural Revolution; the 1967 riots; the eventual emergence of unbridled capitalism and international banking; the 1997 handover; and the first years of the Special Administrative Region.
Yes, a lot goes on in this book, but Lanchester’s deftest touch has been to meld the objective history with the equally complex and layered personal stories of Stewart and the other characters, including a Chinese Catholic nun, Sister Maria, whom he meets on the voyage out in 1935, the other Brits running the colony (while they still could), and his various Chinese business associates, including more than a few members of the organized crime triads.
Of the four narrators, Stewart has the lion’s share, while living through—and providing to us—the history. Sister Maria’s contribution is a single one-and-a-half-page letter, penned in 1942 but not delivered for over forty years. Don’t be misled by its length–its content changes everything. The last 70 pages are narrated by a latterly introduced character (though he has a cameo in the opening chapters), Matthew Ho, whose relationship to the others I can’t reveal without spoiling some intricate plotting, and a clever twist. Ho’s narration is curiously banal, full of short, less than profound sentences, like, “The nightclub had bright colored lights inside.” But this is good writing disguised as bad. Lanchester wants to reveal the quality of Ho’s character by what he says and how he says it; his chapters make up an extended dramatic monologue. In a similar vein, the book’s opening is narrated by a peripheral character, Dawn Stone, a young Englishwoman, even more insipid and materialistic than Ho.In the late 20th century, Dawn takes a job in Hong Kong as a journalist, and quickly finds herself drawn into the endlessly corrupt—and corrupting—corporate Hong Kong. It’s all Gucci bags, Rolexes (some of them knock-offs), boozy yacht parties, and glittering 80th floor offices. Intriguingly, if not unhappily, after 6 short chapters, Dawn Stone disappears completely, and is not heard of again, until she pops up for her own cameo in the closing pages. It’s readily apparent that, although she had been telling her story to us at the beginning, at the end she doesn’t know that we know who she is. Yes, it does get a bit Jamesian. At one point, when Stewart is negotiating his way through the ‘layers’ of the proposed purchase of one of his hotels by a secret consortium, we get this memorable line, “He knew I knew. He knew I knew he knew I knew.” It was at that point that I started to love this book. With both Ho and Stone, Lanchester is playing with not so much an ‘unreliable narrator’ (though we have one of those, too), as a ‘bit of an idiot character’, whose self-awareness and integrity are next to nil, and certainly less than Stewart’s and Sister Maria’s. But in a book that is so obviously concerned with ‘layering’, there may also be a nod to Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead here, and his imagining the off-stage lives of two bit parts in Hamlet. Attending the funeral of a friend, Stewart reports feeling, “…that the section of her life I had seen was only a tiny fragment of her whole being.” The narrative structure of Lanchester’s book might be seen as mirroring this notion: what is a tiny fragment in the shallow and narcissistic Dawn Stone’s experience of modern-day corporate Hong Kong, initially not even noticed by the reader, becomes the compelling and ultimately tragic core of the complex tale told, in turn, by Stewart, Sister Maria and Ho. When Stone turns up again at the end, the circle is closed, the threads and layers merge into a single and remarkable truth. It is not a comfortable truth for any lover of the Eastern city, given its inevitable inheritors, be they Dawn Stone, Matthew Ho, or mainland China in 2047, when the city loses its status as a ‘special administrative region’. Fragrant Harbour is essentially an elegy for Hong Kong.
Fragrant Harbour will be available soon at the Lennoxville Library.