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The Piano Teacher

Review

The Piano Teacher

The growing season may be far off, but 2009 is already providing a bumper crop of outstanding books by first-time novelists. THE PIANO TEACHER, the debut novel of former Elle editor Janice Y. K. Lee, is no exception. It's a blistering portrait of Hong Kong during and after World War II as well as a gutsy exploration of the often dangerous and damaging choices made by individuals during wartime.

THE PIANO TEACHER opens in 1952, as a wide-eyed young bride, the British Claire Pendleton, arrives in postwar Hong Kong with her husband, sent to work for the British government. Claire, a bit adrift in a sea of new customs and cultures, finds employment teaching piano lessons to a girl named Locket Chen, whose Chinese parents, Victor and Melody, appear to have everything --- wealth, privilege, sophistication, comfort with the culture --- that Claire lacks.

Claire's thefts of what she believes to be minor household items seems to set the young woman on a course toward other morally ambiguous behavior, culminating when she embarks on a passionate, unexpected affair with fellow Brit Will Truesdale, the Chens' chauffeur. Claire knows that Will was damaged during the war, but this newcomer to Hong Kong has no real sense of what those who lived through the war experienced and suffered.

Readers will have a pretty good idea, though, as Lee alternates Claire's story with another one, set in 1941 and 1942, shortly after a young Will Truesdale himself arrived in Hong Kong for the first time. Will finds himself swept up by vivacious, intoxicating Trudy Liang, whose Eurasian heritage makes her both an exotic object of desire (for Will) and a person to be mistrusted (by the ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong). As the Japanese invade, and the war comes to their doorstep, Will discovers new, sometimes ugly, dimensions of his society and of the woman he loves.

Lee, who lives in Hong Kong, has clearly done outstanding research that informs nearly every page of her novel. She explains the social structures of WWII-era Hong Kong and vividly brings to life the sounds, sights, colors and even smells of this unusual, multinational but isolated society. Many stories of the horrors of World War II have been told before; Lee's accounts of the horrific internment camps for non-Asians, however, will come as a shock to many readers.

The two strands of Lee's narrative gradually come closer and closer together, until near the end the barriers break down and the narrative moves freely, almost impressionistically, between the two stories. This narrative structure also seems to parallel the themes of Lee's novel, which explores not only the barriers inherent in rigid social structures but also the essential divisions between right and wrong behavior that too often become permeable when conditions, as in wartime, grow desperate indeed. THE PIANO TEACHER succeeds as both an exploration of these key themes and as a complex, complete portrait of a little-known time and place.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 18, 2011

The Piano Teacher
by Janice Y.K. Lee

  • Publication Date: November 17, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143116533
  • ISBN-13: 9780143116530