With his first two novels, John Lanchester established himself as a writer whose focus on one man's interior landscape was, in each case, a tour de force. His literary debut, A Debt to Pleasure (1996), is a diabolically clever interior monologue in which (the reader only gradually realizes) the narrator, who is ostensibly writing about recipes and culinary lore, is a sly, mad serial murderer. The novel won four awards, including the prestigious Whitbread Prize for first novel. It was a tough act to follow, but Mr Phillips (2000) was another gem, composed of the rambling thoughts of a 50-year-old London accountant trying to come to grips with the fact that he's been made redundant.
Having made a reputation for brilliant miniaturization, it could be expected that Lanchester would again exploit his forte for exploring one character's emotional dislocation. Not so, for with Fragrant Harbor (Putnam/Marian Wood, June), he has written a sweeping narrative of love and loss, war and social change, the reverberations of betrayal and the culture of money. In this absorbing novel, set in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong in 1933 and six ensuing decades, Lanchester exhibits a talent for complex plot lines, beautifully nuanced historical detail, keen observation of class differences both in England and in the Far East and rich characterization informed by compassion.
In fact, the details of Lanchester's cosmopolitan upbringing and family background suggest that this is the novel he was destined to write. Born in Hamburg in 1962, he was taken at six weeks of age to Hong Kong and was brought up there with short intervals in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar); Calcutta, India; Labuan, Malaysia; and the Asian nation of Brunei. Today, Lanchester lives in Clapham Junction, a 20-minute cab ride from Central London. His semidetached brick and clapboard house is distinguished from its neighbors by a jaunty purple gate and purple front door. He and PW talk in the garden, converted by Lanchester's wife, Miranda Carter, from "a slab of concrete" into a healthy patch of grass bordered by flowering shrubs. Carter is herself a writer; her new book, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, is winning rave reviews. Toys that belong to the couple's four-year-old son, Finn, are flung casually about the yard; he is soon to have a sibling, Lanchester tells us. Lanchester wears tortoise-rimmed glasses and has an earnest expression, periodically punctuated by an engaging smile. His quiet, unforced wit is often self-deprecating, and his remarks reveal a meticulous sense of intellectual organization.
History and fate converge in Fragrant Harbor, as they did in the lives of Lanchester's grandparents (he was a dentist; she, a nurse), who lived through the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong as prisoners in the notorious Stanley concentration camp. As a child, Lanchester was aware of his grandmother's visits to the cemetery, honoring the graves of people who died in the battle for Hong Kong or during their incarceration afterwards. Having spent his youth there, he is fluent in Cantonese and is acquainted with such facts as why neon signs in Hong Kong don't blink (so as not to confuse incoming air traffic).
He encountered class snobbery when he first arrived in England in 1972, and later at Oxford, and its pervasive influence still irritates him. "Almost the worst of it is that the English are so interested in it. It's dissolving in this country and what's dissolving it is money. Because class is soluble in money, not immediately, but over time," he says. His perception that Hong Kong typifies an accelerated example of this money culture was one impetus for writing Fragrant Harbor. "It's the thing that's global about globalization. Hong Kong is a particular case because everything happens there before it happens elsewhere in the world."
For a long time, money, or more accurately, the lack of it, determined Lanchester's ability to write. Because his first job as a journalist in London was "apocalyptically badly paid," he was forced to find part-time work, first as a football reporter, then as an obituary writer, a book critic and a restaurant critic. Ironically, it was one of his football pieces in the London Literary Review that motivated editor Simon Kelman, then editor of the Observer magazine, to commission an article on food. Unknown to Kelman or anyone else except his wife. Lanchester was already writing A Debt to Pleasure. He had begun it as a graduate student living in a shared house with five other men, none of whom knew his way around a kitchen. With the help of his mother's explicitly detailed recipes, he discovered that he loved cooking and he started reading cookbooks. He was struck by how interesting cookbooks were as a form, he says, citing works by M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David and Richard Olney. "I thought: what if you had a cookbook that was actually a story. Then I thought: it has to be a murder story. The idea came to me in one go. I thought I'd write it in one go, too. Thought I'd wake up one day and found I'd written it. But that tends not to happen," he says with typical wry humor.
Optimistically, Lanchester took three months unpaid leave from his job as book critic at the London Review of Books and went to the country to write. Five years later, he finally finished. "The thing that was hard was that I didn't tell anyone I was writing a book. I still maintain that it's too easy to talk things away. I do believe in the pressure cooker theory of writing books." But revealing his secret proved to be excruciating. He muffed his first attempt to tell his friend (and eventual editor) Jon Riley. When he finally choked out his news that he was writing a novel, he felt like "one of those fishes that lives in the depths of the sea. When you bring them up they turn inside out from the change in pressure. I felt quite a bit like that bizarre-looking fish."
As a critic himself, the experience of reading reviews has proven surprisingly easy, he says. "It's been a great help, actually. It gave me some perspective. Especially since sometimes I've disliked a book and said so in print and then realized three months later that I was still thinking about the book. It helped provide a philosophical level of introspection."
The chief difficulty in writing Debt was getting the narrator Tarquin's voice. "You had to think he was ridiculous and then gradually realize he was wicked. I had to make up a set of rules for what he had to sound like. For example, he doesn't ever lie. The indirection of the narrative came out of that. The formal demands created his character."
In writing Mr Phillips, he was interested "in how people react when bad news happens. That feeling of numbness." Some of that quality is evident in English expatriate Tom Stewart, the central character in Fragrant Harbor. "I am very interested in reticence, particularly since it's changing fast. I grew up knowing quite a lot of men like that, mostly due to the war. Men who had those extraordinary experiences did not discuss them. I wanted to make the point that reticence is not a bar to feeling things very strongly. We make the assumption that not talking about things means that one doesn't mind, but that's not true."
While the main plot of the book takes place during WWII, Lanchester brackets those chapters with contemporary scenes, both featuring fiercely ambitious British journalist Dawn Stone. "I wanted someone to take you to Hong Kong now. It is really such an astonishing place. I thought that you wouldn't be able to hear Tom's voice unless you heard another voice first. The risk I took is that the reader might prefer Dawn. There was more of her originally. I cut it back." Indeed, Dawn is such a vibrant character, and so representative of the Thatcher era, that readers will hope that she'll reappear in another Lanchester novel.
Producing a long novel confronted Lanchester with a problem he'd not previously encountered with his shorter books. He usually writes the first draft in longhand, then types it into a manuscript. But typing Fragrant Harbor led to RSI (repetitive strain injury), and he finally decided to dictate the book on tape. "It was ever so strange lying on a bed talking into a Dictaphone," he says. But in the long run, he liked the process and thinks he'll do it again with his next book.
He's quite happy with the people who represent him. His agent in England is Caradoc King. He's followed his editors Jon Riley from Picador to Faber, and Marian Wood from Holt to Putnam. As he awaits reviews of Fragrant Harbor, which will be issued simultaneously in Britain and here, he is somewhat bemused by the reputation for versatility it's earned for him in advance. "The difference between the books is obviously very striking, because everyone has commented on it," he says. "It's less apparent to me because it's like listening to your voice on the Dictaphone—it always sounds like your voice."
Lanchester's voice is clearly a marvel of ingenuity, wit and narrative verve.