20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, France, John Lanchester, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘The Debt to Pleasure’ by John Lanchester

Fiction – paperback; Picador Classics; 232 pages; 2015.

John Lanchester’s debut novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a subversive black comedy about a narcissistic food snob who has a well-disguised penchant for murder.

The tale is narrated by Tarquin Winot stream-of-consciousness style in a voice that is both pompous and eccentric. He begins by stating “this is not a conventional cookbook” and then explains it was written while on a short holiday travelling “southwards through France, which is, as the reader will learn, my spiritual (and for a portion of the year, actual) homeland”. (For the rest of the year he lives in Norfolk.)

This lends the narrative a “serendipitous, ambulatory and yet progressive structure” as his wanderings are accompanied by his highbrow thoughts on food philosophy, provenance and gastronomy — or, as he describes it later, “gastro-historico-pyscho-autobiographico-antropico-philosophic lubrications”.

These, in turn, are intertwined with his own personal history, the second — and more popular (as we are constantly told) — son of wealthy parents (a successful businessman and a former stage actress), educated at home via a succession of private tutors (because his nature was judged “too fine grained and sensitive” to weather boarding school) and effectively raised by a kindly Irish nanny, called Mary T, whom he adored but then inexplicably seemed to frame for a personal theft.

Menus for all seasons

Structured around a series of seasonal menus — for winter, spring, summer and autumn — replete with recipes, it’s easy to feel that Tarquin’s thoughts on everything from what makes a good blini to the secret of a great croque monsieur (a “dab of mustard” apparently) are essentially harmless (and occasionally soporific), without quite realising he’s making a series of rather sinister confessions involving  family members and various servants.

His seemingly innocuous ramblings are dotted with laugh-out-loud funny lines and humorous asides, such as this sentence from a recipe for fish stew:

[…] then add six pints of what in England would be chlorinated former effluent (also known as ‘water’) and boil furiously.

And this introduction to his chapter titled “An Aïoli”:

‘It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.’ Thus X. Marcel Boulestin, a hero of Anglo-French culinary interaction, inexplicably omitted from ‘Larousse Gastronomique’. And which of us has not felt the truth of Boulestin’s words as we arrive in that land whose very name seems to betoken and evoke a widening of life’s sensuous possibilities, the addition of an extra few notes at either end of one’s emotional keyboard, a set of new stops on the church organ of the psyche, an expansion of every cell of one’s sensory paraphernalia, a new rapprochement between body, mind and spirit, that land which is also an idea, a medium, a mêtier, a programme, an education, a philosophy, a cuisine, a word: Provence. (On rereading that sentence I discover that, grammatically, it requires a question mark which I am, however, reluctant to supply.)

Along with his constant “mansplaining” and penchant for overly verbose sentences and often ludicrous word choices (see quote above), Tarquin’s narrative is riddled with petty jealousies mostly revolving around his older brother, a successful sculptor, whom he managed to cheat out of an inheritance. And we soon learn that the real reason for Tarquin’s holiday is not to soak up some French provincial sun, but to track down his brother’s biographer so that he can, well, let’s just say ensure that she doesn’t uncover, in the course of her research, anything that she shouldn’t…

Admittedly, I found Tarquin’s voice a little overbearing and far too conceited and arch for my liking (I could only read it in small doses), but that’s the point of the book: you’re not supposed to like this character and you’re certainly not supposed to like his deeds.

But this was a fun read — and to use a deliberately chosen pun — a rather delicious one at that!

The Debt to Pleasure won John Lanchester the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1996 and it was reissued as part of the Picador Classic imprint in 2015.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Cook by Wayne Macauley: A deliciously dark and subversive tale about a 17-year-old young offender who becomes a trainee chef under the tutelage of a Gordon Ramsay-like figure, before branching out into his own (deadly) business as a personal chef for a rich woman and her family.

This is my 7th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 26th for #TBR40. I purchased it in 2015 when it was re-issued as part of the Picador Classic imprint. I attended an event at Foyles celebrating the launch of that imprint where Lanchester discussed this book, alongside John Banville whose novel The Book of Evidence was also re-issued as part of the series. Banville also wrote the introduction to Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Lanchester kindly signed his copy for me.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, John Lanchester, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Mr Phillips’ by John Lanchester

Mr Philips

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 260 pages; 2012.

First published in 2000, Mr Phillips is John Lanchester’s second novel. To be perfectly frank, I hated it.

The story is set on one day in the late 1990s. Mr Phillips, an accountant at a catering services supply company, has been made redundant but is too embarrassed to tell his family. Instead, he dresses for work as per normal and heads off to the train station for his daily commute into central London, where he then wanders around to fill in the hours before he’s expected home.

Written in the third person but entirely from Mr Phillips’ point of view, the narrative painstakingly follows every step, every interaction and every thought he has between leaving home that morning and returning that night. It’s a rather exhaustive narrative, highly detailed and packed with the minutiae of one man’s life.

One thing soon becomes clear: Mr Phillips is obsessed with sex.

My hackles began to rise pretty early on in the book when Mr Phillips, wandering around Battersea Park, runs into a pornographer, who strikes up a conversation with him.

Speaking as a pornographer, I can tell you that the important thing is never to try and work out what a woman is thinking. It only confuses you and they change their minds so much anyway the main thing is just to steam ahead with your plan intact.

And while I know you should never confuse a horrid character’s thoughts with the author’s own beliefs — they are not one and the same thing — I couldn’t help but wonder why the entire storyline of Mr Phillips revolves around one man’s one-track mind. (Well, okay, two-track mind: when he’s not thinking about sex he’s thinking about numbers — he’s an accountant after all.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the content given the novel’s opening line:

At night, Mr Phillips lies beside his wife and dreams about other women.

But I quickly lost interest in this rather mundane story of a middle-aged man’s (monotonous) interior monologue, and by the time he’s had lunch with his adult son in Soho (and I find out that the son objectifies women as much as his father does) I’d already decided I didn’t much like this book.

Then, when Mr Phillips wanders into a sex club and watches a show, I was positively ready to throw my Kindle across the room. The descriptions were so lurid and revolting I ended up skipping through the entire section and then suddenly found Mr Phillips caught up in a bank robbery. I mean, the whole book is kind of preposterous and not easy to believe.

If  I could salvage anything positive from the novel it would be this: Mr Phillips’ expertly drawn characterisation, of a dull boring man with a rich interior life (I didn’t hate him, I didn’t feel sorry for him, I just wish he wasn’t so tiresome) is only matched by the vivid detail of London’s neighbourhoods, many of them familiar to me, such as Clapham, Battersea, Chelsea and Soho, which truly bring the capital to life. But on the whole, Mr Phillips will probably be the worst book I read all year and now I’m not sure I want to read anything else by this author…

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in 2012, another 99p Kindle bargain, probably because I wanted to read more by this author. I’ve seen him at many literary events over the years and really loved Fragrant Harbour, his third novel published two years after this one, when I read it in 2010.

Author, Book review, China, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Hong Kong, John Lanchester, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Fragrant Harbour’ by John Lanchester


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 299 pages; 2003.

John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour is billed as a novel about Hong Kong. I recently spotted it in my local Oxfam shop and bought it in preparation for an upcoming trip to the former British colony.

The story is really three stories, although the lives of the main characters are intertwined so that it reads as one giant narrative spanning 70 years and three generations.

The central character is Tom Stewart, an Englishman in his 80s looking back on his life as an expat in the “fragrant harbour” (Cantonese for Hong Kong). He moved there in 1935, partly to escape the family business of running a pub in Faversham, Kent, but ironically ends up making his fortune in a similar trade: the hotel business.

But before we get to hear Tom’s tale, the book opens in bombastic style with the story of an ambitious female journalist wanting to make her mark on the world. Dawn Stone (real name Doris) charts her climb up the career ladder, from a local newspaper in Blackpool to the nationals in London, before accepting a job offer in glamorous Hong Kong in 1995.

Dawn’s plotted history is told in a breathless, almost arrogant style, in just 50 short pages. By the end of her story we know that she’s shallow enough to ditch her journalistic principles for the offer of big bucks and power. The message? That Hong Kong might be glamorous and the most crowded city on earth, but it’s also fuelled by greed and it doesn’t take much to be seduced by her charms.

Thank goodness, then, for fine upstanding citizen Tom, whose story takes up the greater chunk of this novel. Tom has the benefit of being a survivor, first as a hotelier in a cut-throat business and second as a prisoner of war captured by the Japanese during the Second World War. His friendship with Sister Maria, the Chinese-born Catholic nun whom he meets on the boat trip from England (she teaches him Cantonese during the six-week sea voyage) is the one constant that grounds him. But is there more to their relationship than meets the eye?

The third story follows Matthew Ho, a Chinese-born businessman in his 30s, who divides his time between Hong Kong and Australia, where his young family, including his in-laws, have emigrated. Like Dawn Stone, Matthew, too, is ambitious, and through some plot implausibility, meets Dawn on the very first flight Dawn makes from Heathrow to Hong Kong. Their “friendship”, albeit as journalist and source, works both ways: Dawn gets to use him for stories, he later gets to use her to pitch a business idea to her powerful boss.

Of course the main “character” in this book is Hong Kong itself. Lanchester does a good job of bringing the city to life, with rich descriptions of the junk-filled harbour, the steep streets and the skyscrapers that line them. He provides a strong sense of history too, covering the city’s physical development from the mid-1930s to the Chinese handover in 1997. Key political events — the Japanese capture of Hong Kong in 1941, the Chinese civil war and Mao’s cultural revolution, the 1967 riots in which pro-communists demonstrated against British rule, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing — are dotted throughout, giving the story a truly epic feel.

But at times it does feel slightly forced, particularly in part one, when Dawn arrives on foreign shores and is given a running commentary on the city by her boss:

See that stone wall around the airport perimeter? That used to be the Walled City of Kowloon. During the war the Japanese tore down the walls and made POWs build the perimeter of the airport. The city stayed where it was, a total no-go area to the cops thanks to some ancient row over jurisdiction between the Chinese and the Brits. Literally swarming with Triads, junkies, sweatshops, whorehouses, you name it. More edifyingly, if you look out the back window you can catch a glimpse of the mountains around Kowloon. They’re in the New Territories, which is the last bit of mainland between China proper. The Chinese said the hills were dragons. There were eight of them. Then the last of the Sung emperors came here in the thirteenth century, fleeing the Mongols, Kubla Khan among them, he of the stately pleasure-dome where Alph the sacred river ran.

This, I hasten to point out, goes on for pages. To be fair, this kind of author knowledge, masquerading as scene-setting, is only present in the first part of the novel. By the time we get to Tom’s story we pretty much know that Hong Kong is beset by political corruption, dirty money, crime gangs, drugs and prostitution. But we also know that the city attracts the rich and powerful, and offers a lifestyle many can only dream about.

While Fragrant Harbour is a highly entertaining read, one that taught me much about Hong Kong’s recent history in an enjoyable manner, its narrative structure lets it down slightly. It would have worked equally well told entirely through Tom’s eyes without cluttering it up with Dawn’s and Matthew’s voices as well.

That said, I still ate up the book in a matter of days, and found myself caught completely off-guard by some unexpected plot surprises.

Fragrant Harbour was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2002.