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The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

It’s hard to be entirely objective about a novel written by someone actually raised in Hong Kong and now resident here, especially a work referred to by Publishers’ Weekly as “one of the hot books” of the 2007 Frankfurt Book Fair.

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee
The Piano Teacher, Janice Y. K. Lee (HarperCollins Publishers, April 2009; Penguin Books, November 2009)

Set during World War Two and its aftermath, in and out of the elegant residences of the Peak, the Peninsula Hotel and Stanley Prison, Janice Y. K. Lee’s debut novel The Piano Teacher is likely to be added to the all-too-short short list of Hong Kong-set novels of any sophistication at all.

The Piano Teacher has two intersecting story lines, one starting in 1941, and the other a decade later. In the first, Englishman Will Truesdale falls in love with Eurasian Trudy Liang, who except for her fluency in Cantonese and love of Chinese food, might have stepped out off the set of a Noel Coward play. War and the Japanese intervene. Ten years later, Claire Pendleton, newlywed expat wife, lands in Hong Kong and is hired to teach piano to the daughter of the very wealthy Victor and Melody Chen. Will has emerged from the War and Stanley Prison as Victor’s driver; he gives Claire a lift and the inevitable happens.

This could end up quite ordinary, with descriptions of dinner parties, tropical indolence, the deprivations of war and frissons of inter-racial love. Different readers may find for themselves different reasons as to why The Piano Teacher rises above this, whether the ambivalence and darkness of the relationships, or the plot which is as much a historical mystery as the love story some of the marketing and jacket covers might lead one to assume.

Most interesting, perhaps, is Lee’s delving into some forgotten, or at less-often-described, corners of the War, the period between the fall of Hong Kong and actual internment, as well as what was happening outside the camps and the interaction between those outside and the occupying Japanese authorities.

Any novel set in Hong Kong will probably and unfortunately at some point be judged by the mythical standard of the Hong Kong novel. And any novel will inevitably fall short. The Piano Teacher, for example, like John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour or Alice Greenway’s White Ghost Girls, is what might be termed an “expat novel”: the protagonists are largely white. The main love interest is, in addition, an exotic blend of East and West and the primary Chinese characters are rather unsavoury. Each book, however, needs to be read for what it is rather than for what some might wish it to be; nevertheless someone will at some point have to write a novel that captures this city from its Chinese as well as its European, colonial side.

But for now, Hong Kong book readers will surely welcome an all-too-rare well-crafted and enjoyable story set during a formative and tumultuous time in this fair city’s history.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.