The Piano Teacher

Written by Janice Y.K. Lee
Review by Viviane Crystal

Claire and Martin Pendleton arrive in Hong Kong: Martin to work in “water,” and Claire to teach piano to Locket, daughter of wealthy Chinese parents, Victor and Melody Chen. Claire falls for William, the Chen family chauffeur and former lover of Trudy Liang. Each character carries a heavy burden of war memories, a time when one did what was necessary to survive.

Many novels have been written about the Japanese takeover of China in 1942, including the horrific prisoner of war camps, the brutal raping and murder of local Chinese and foreigners, the greedy acquisition of Chinese artistic treasures, and the post-war attempt to escape responsibility for one’s moral and immoral actions. But Janice Y. K. Lee’s story is unique for its characters’ moods as they manifest and infuse into their surroundings.

These evolving moods are a microcosmic window into the larger historical tone evident in Hong Kong’s decline from a profligate center of Asian prosperity to a very dangerous, suspicious marketplace. Only the powerful survive by trading secrets and goods for protection, a bartering process that inadvertently and literally fosters life and death to the careful or lucky few. William is dark, mysterious and inexplicable to his lovers, Trudy and Claire. The latter attempt, in similar and different ways, to be shocking and carefree; but the Japanese invasion calls forth truth of one’s being. Are the consequences of survival to be understood as truth, integrity or sheer cowardice? Who are the enemies among one’s own friends and acquaintances?

The Piano Teacher depicts a tapestry of life, hope, betrayal, terror, sadness and finally an attempt to reconcile the past with the present; not an easy composition, but Lee has skillfully crafted and offered it as an amazing concert in the form of historical fiction. Superb!