John Lanchester, . . Putnam/Wood, $25.95 (342pp) ISBN 978-0-399-14866-8

A tinted review in adult Forecasts indicates a book that's of exceptional importance to our readers, but hasn't received a starred or boxed review.

FRAGRANT HARBORJohn Lanchester. Putnam/Wood, $25.95 (352p) ISBN 0-399-14866-3

Chance meetings that reverberate for seven decades and affect many lives drive the plot in British writer Lanchester's latest novel, a suspenseful and poignant triumph of storytelling and an atmospheric portrait of a fabled city. In 1935, young Englishman Tom Stewart sails to Hong Kong in search of adventure. During the six-week voyage, he is taught Cantonese by a young Chinese missionary nun, Sister Maria. Upon his arrival in Hong Kong, his proficiency in the language leads to a career as a hotel manager. When the Japanese invade, Sister Maria urges him to flee with her, but he's given his word that he'll work as an undercover agent for the British. After the war, which Tom spends mostly in the notorious Stanley prison, his life and Sister Maria's continue to entwine. Then she disappears, a victim of the crime triad run by the corrupt Wo family. Tom's recital of these events, brimming with wartime intrigue and with an undercurrent of repressed emotion, constitutes the main part of the narrative; it is bracketed by the only marginally less lethal conflicts of modern business, as introduced in the meeting, on an airplane in 1995, of Dawn Stone, an enterprising English journalist, and entrepreneur Matthew Ho, whose identity becomes clear in the last section of the novel. Lanchester steeps the narrative in vivid detail (having been raised in Hong Kong, he is intimately acquainted with the city), and the subtheme of money and its ultimate power over human destiny permeates the story. The reader's only cavil may be the ebbing of tension at the conclusion, which is narrated by the reticent Matthew. Yet the final irony, when it comes, is both bitter and sweet, an apt analogy to Heung gong, the "fragrant harbor" that smells of corruption and greed. (July 8)

Forecast:Lanchester's previous, prize-winning novels, The Debt to Pleasure and Mr. Phillips, excelled in cleverness but didn't hint at the depth of feeling and narrative drive that he manifests here. Though booksellers may have to reintroduce him to readers, they should have no trouble recommending this compelling narrative.