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  With a little help from his friends

Fragrant Harbour
By John Lanchester
Faber £16.99, pp310

The Observer, June 30th 2002

WHAT DOES John Lanchester sound like? What is his true voice, his tone, his signature style? To read his fiction is to be left wondering about such things, because there is no one characteristic Lanchester style. Instead, when you read Lanchester, you enter a realm of mystification and evasion: if his narrators are not unreliable, they are naively self-deceiving, unsure of themselves and of their place in the world.

Lanchester has a suspicion of omniscience, of the magisterial certainties offered by a central unifying intelligence who knows everything about everyone in his own fictional universe. He prefers the oblique and glancing eye, the partial, limited intelligence. He is not the novelist-as-puppet-master, moving seamlessly between conflicting consciousnesses, as Ian McEwan did so masterfully in Atonement. What he is, rather, is a talented ventriloquist: he speaks most convincingly through other people, subordinating his own voice to that which is stylised and created.

His celebrated debut, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), was narrated by a fancily writing sociopath, Tarquin Winot, who was, fashionably, a gourmand, a snob and a high-class murderer. The novel reads more like an exaggerated exercise in sub-Nabokovian pastiche than a truly original work, but it was amusing all the same and established Lanchester as a writer who had the potential to write very good sentences indeed. Except that in his second book, Mr Phillips (2000), about one day in the life of a middle-aged accountant who is made suddenly redundant, Lanchester abandoned the Nabokovian high style for something altogether more restrained, a style more appropriate, perhaps, to Mr Phillips, the little man whose bland, yearning consciousness we inhabit for the duration of the book.

In Fragrant Harbour, Lanchester has once more opted for pastiche and imitation, in that he uses three distinct narrators to tell the story of Hong Kong in the twentieth century, each of whom has his or her own convincing, delineated voice and idiom.

The first part of the book is narrated by Dawn Stone, an ambitious journalist who, after a moderately successful Fleet Street career, travels to Hong Kong in the early 1990s to work as an investigative reporter on a glossy magazine. Lanchester takes a considerable risk in choosing Stone as a narrator, because she writes energetically but without any real distinction of phrase or insight, in a kind of smart, wised-up journalese that is so popular today with certain female columnists and which Lanchester spoofs expertly, but for rather too long.

Stone's story is an overfamiliar one, too, of innocence corrupted by a boundless desire for money; we last glimpse her switching sides to become a well-paid operative for a criminal gang whose activities she had been working to expose.

The best and by far the longest section of the novel is narrated by a quiet Englishman called Tom Stewart, who, in the mid-1930s, uses a small inheritance to travel to Hong Kong to work in the hotel trade. On the voyage out from England, in between studying Cantonese, he meets a young, attractive nun called Maria, with whom he stays in intermittent contact for most of his life and whom, you suspect, he loves more deeply than he will ever know. Stewart is nothing if not a master of self-evasion.

The plot of the Stewart section of the novel is highly mobile and includes espionage, the Japanese capture of Hong Kong, the imprisonment and torture of Stewart and many of his British friends, and the emergence of the Triads and other criminal gangs. But everything is narrated at the same cool, measured distance: whether Stewart is being bullied by one of his Japanese torturers or ordering high tea at the Hong Kong Club, there is very little variation in, or urgency of, tone.

Again and again, the key events of his life happen offstage. On first surrendering to the Japanese, he reports that: 'The soldiers subjected me to certain indignities.' We are never told what these certain indignities were. Later, after he has abruptly broken off his engagement with a high-spirited young Englishwoman, Stewart says: 'It is a conversation that I prefer not to recall.'

There are many conversations that Stewart prefers not to recall, as it were, and so long stretches of his life in Hong Kong are compressed into only a few pages, a trick that gives the novel a remote, reported feel, rather than a sense of authentic lived experience. In the low-toned reticence of his style, with its evasions and sly withholdings, one feels strongly here the influence of Kazuo Ishiguro on Lanchester. Tom Stewart, like Ishiguro's self-deceiving narrators, spends much of his time in flight from emotion and in failing to acknowledge that he has devoted his life to the inchoate love of an impossible ideal, a woman who will remain for ever out of reach because of her own commitment to the higher love of God.

The control and consistency of tone evident throughout the Stewart section, indeed throughout the novel, the final part of which is narrated by a young Chinese entrepreneur, is impressive. Lanchester's previous novels were witty and stylish, but they were also too cold and cerebral, underscored as they were by a young man's hauteur and desire to impress. Fragrant Harbour is different. There's a depth and emotional candour here that, long after you have finished the book, is hard to forget.

Yet what engages most, in the end, is not so much the human stories as that of Hong Kong itself. Lanchester spent much of his childhood and adolescence there and he writes elegiacally about the lost colony, conjuring up an image of a hazy, enchanted place that, no matter how much debased by commerce and crime, remains even today commensurate with our capacity for wonder. So Fragrant Harbour is really a love letter to Hong Kong, redolent with the bright shine of romance and nostalgia for the indefinable essence of a place that seems to be forever changing and yet, paradoxically, to remain forever the same.


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