January 2009

Hong Kong in the wake of war

By Janice Y.K. Lee
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Claire married Martin because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Later, after they moved from England to Hong Kong in 1951, "there had been times when [she] felt that she could become a different person." Still, "the elasticity of her possibility diminished over time" until she met Will, emotionally damaged from earlier experiences, but still able to help her get "out of context."

In the course of Janice Y.K. Lee's exceptional first novel, Claire (the eponymous piano teacher) eventually lands at the far end of the arc of independence she hadn't realized she'd been following from the beginning. Certainly, if one is to do one's own thing, Hong Kong, with its population of rebels and fawners, is the place for it. On the other hand (except perhaps for poor Martin), the other residents all have longer histories of machinations and personal betrayals—how could it be otherwise given the last 10 years of this city's history, the first five of which were spent in trying to survive the brutal Japanese occupation, and the last five in trying to forget it?

The Piano Teacher is split into two alternating narratives: one detailing Will's affair during World War II with the haunting Eurasian beauty Trudy (who dominates the pages during her tenure), and the other exploring his affair with Claire a decade later. This book is well worth reading if only for its pitch-perfect portrayal of a ruthlessly brittle society, so destroyed in the 1940s and revived in the '50s. The moral ambiguities and secrets of citizens and expatriates alike float or sink as they deal (and make deals) with their occupiers.

Lee was herself born and raised in Hong Kong and educated at Harvard. A former editor at Elle and Mirabella magazines, she now lives once more in that extravagant city. Here, Lee has produced a powerful treatment of a precarious place where deceit and betrayal and their consequences are not confined to the war years. And where sometimes, it must seem, the last and best resort is to hunker down and curl up in a ball, to "dissolve into [Hong Kong], be absorbed in its rhythms and become, easily, a part of the world."

For better or for worse.

Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland. 

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The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher

By Janice Y.K. Lee
ISBN 9780670020485

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