Fragrant Harbour

 John Lanchester seems to enjoy telling stories in multiple voices. He used this technique to great effect in Capital, which swung between about a dozen different points of view to explore various lives in a single street in London, and he also uses it in Fragrant Harbour to tell the history of another city, this time Hong Kong.

At the beginning of this novel, I thought I wasn't going to enjoy it at all. It opens with a narrative from a journalist called Dawn Stone, who talks us through the career twists and turns that end with her winding up in Hong Kong in the 1990s (pre-handover): it's all designer clothes and business gossip and money and yacht parties and all pretty tedious really. Luckily the second, longest section is much more engaging, taking us further back in time with the voice of Tom Stewart, who sails out to Hong Kong in the 1930s and ends up managing a grand hotel. I found his story, including his friendship with Chinese nun Sister Maria, really interesting and I wish the whole novel had focused on the two of them. There is another shorter bookend to finish off the novel, this time dealing with another contemporary character, and these four lives are intertwined in sometimes quite implausible ways.

Overall I did enjoy Fragrant Harbour and learned something about Hong Kong's history, including the horrors of wartime (which were apparently much morose than described here) which is an area I don't know much about. It was really poignant reading about this vibrant, unique city, knowing how hard the government is now clamping down on their former freedoms -- it really seems like a different world. And I've just realised this is another novel with an Asian flavour -- just a coincidence!

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