Fragrant Harbour


Fragrant Harbour, by John Lanchester, purports to be an epic novel of Hong Kong. Sadly, it doesn't quite have that spark, and just seems to lurch along in a pedestrian fashion.

It certainly has a somewhat epic scope, spanning most of the 20th century, with wars and revolutions. It doesn't feel like an epic though — it feels more like a gentle look at a few lives, rather than an epic like TaiPan

I found the tale of Dawn Stone to be utterly uninteresting, except in a "I know a few people like that and I don't like them" sort of way. People who skate across the surface of Hong Kong in a whirl of Junk trips, Mid-levels and Peak apartments and jobs with huge housing allowances. (Not that there's anything wrong with each of those individually, but together they tend to insulate people from the reality of Hong Kong.)

Matthew Ho seems to be painted in very broad strokes. He does a lot of very generic Hong Kong Businessman things, which aren't very engaging. And, to be honest, I was more interested in what Tom Stewart was doing than Matthew.

Tom Stewart is the real protagonist, and I'd have read a few hundred more pages about his time in Hong Kong easily. That's where Lanchester really did his research, and it shows. Little details of life in Hong Kong since the thirties abound, and really help the story feel real. If you're reading with no experience of Hong Kong, you won't notice these details, but to me it read like a pretty straight historical piece. I felt that I could have gone down to Deep Water Bay and picked out the hotel from the description given.

I found the ending to be quite abrupt, however, and I did wonder if my edition had a few pages missing. Should the last line be "I did it because I am a refugee."?

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This page contains a single entry by dave published on June 21, 2004 12:59 AM.

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