The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y. K. Lee, is set in Hong Kong during the nineteen forties and fifties. It interlaces two time periods: the early 19402 to the end of World War II and a few months in the 1950s. The two stories are linked through an Englishman named Will and the Chen family.
The piano teacher is Claire, a young Englishwoman who comes to Hong Kong in the fifties with her husband. She is newly married and not in love, though she doesn’t realize that she wants to find love. She starts teaching Locket, the Chen’s daughter. She meets Will, their chauffeur, and becomes enamored of him. They have an affair.
However, as the novel unfolds, so does the other story. Will first came to Hong Kong shortly before the start of WW II. He fell in love with a wild Eurasian cousin of Mrs. Chen, Trudy. When the was started, he ended up in a prisoner camp, while Trudy stayed on the outside and got mixed up with the Japanese, becoming the paramour of the man in charge of the city. We learn about many of the horrors bestowed upon the Chinese by the Japanese. While Trudy is able to help Will for a time, she is eventually murdered. This past makes Will inaccessible to Claire.
I had mixed feelings about this novel. It started very slow. Too slow. But once it gets going it is fascinating. All of the details about the Japanese occupation and their treatment of the conquered bring it to life, along with the reactions of the population and the prisoners to their treatment. The strain on Will and Trudy’s relationship is portrayed well. The way Trudy tries to stay alive by sleeping with the Japanese, and the horrible things it does to her sense of self, really held my attention.
Claire is another matter. She always seems half alive, although she tries to counteract that with her affair, by stealing things from the Chen’s, and by exploring Hong Kong in a way that most of her fellow foreigners deign to do. She likes its lively streets. She is never comfortable with Will, however, and one gets the sense that she never really finds herself. She is one of those almost likeable heroines who never quite becomes interesting enough to invoke the reader’s love or even interest. Trudy, on the other hand, is a passionate character, who turns out to be much deeper and more lovable the more we get to know her. She reminded me of people I have known, who invoke both love and exasperation (if not hate). At least those are strong emotions.
Overall, I enjoyed The Piano Teacher, once I got through the first few chapters and was drawn into the love affair between Trudy and Will and the horrors of the Japanese occupation. I just wish it had started out with more punch. Luckily, since I had it in my car, I kept listening and am so glad I did.