Thursday, July 25, 2013

Making home on a changing island (Books - Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester)

A capsule will have to suffice for this entertaining read on multiple generations of English ex-pats in Hong Kong.  This is the first novel by John Lanchester I have read.  Fragrant Harbour is itself fragrant with a sense of place.
We went down the hill, toward one of Hong Kong's most amazing spectacles, the Sunday gathering of Filipina amahs around Statue Square, spilling out toward Legco, the park, the Exchange.  You hear it long before you see it, a high fluttering sounds, a cross between a roar and a twitter, like thousands of birds, like no other human sounds you've ever heard.  The noise made by ten thousand Filipinas all talking at the same time isn't like a crowd event, a march or a rally or a sporting match, since they aren't concentrating on an external entity but on one another - eating and swapping picnics, swapping news and reading letters from home, listening to music, shopping at the impromptu market that features carefully targeted goods (like big, cheap folding suitcases, ultracheap towels and T-shirts), swapping photos, but all, mostly, talking, all the time.
Lanchester's writing makes details of time and place vibrate with life.  He tells a good story too, or really, he tells many  - of multiple generations who lived from the 1930s to the present day.  One cares about each of the characters a great deal, but I was not equally compelled by every succeeding story.  And did they ever fuse into one?  The last, a modern-day story, particularly stands apart.  This is partly because we go from times in which people spoke to each other in person, or wrote letters, to one in which we live thousands of miles from someone and communicate with a brief call, email, or text  - and yet, this novel seems to say, we remain miles apart. I'm not sure that this quite comes together, but this is a novel about people who don't hang onto the past but instead remake themselves in a brand new place and, as such, it is about a certain sense of unrootedness and yet, it all relates to a common place.   An unusual paradox, but one that makes enjoyable reading.


Anonymous said...

If you enjoyed this one you might want to take a look at his novel set in London - Capital.

Ted said...

BT - Thanks for that recommendation. I would like to read something else by him.