~by Janice Y. K. Lee
One of the many things I enjoy about receiving books to review is the feeling I get walking into a bookstore after a release and being able to point and say, "Hey, I've read that!" Such was the case recently with The Piano Teacher, Janice Y. K. Lee's debut novel, which was not only prominently featured but was the store's top seller in fiction. The book has received generally favorable reviews, especially for a first novel, and it's now time to add mine into the mix. The Piano Teacher examines Hong Kong during World War II and it's aftermath, particularly looking at the people living there and how their lives were impacted by the Japanese invasion of the area. The Second World War has always been a topic of great interest for me, but I am much more familiar with the events on the European front than everything that was happening in Asia, and I know very little about Hong Kong at all. So, I happily accepted a copy of The Piano Teacher for review.
In 1951, Claire Pendleton, an English newlywed, followed her husband to Hong Kong. Surprisingly, she easily adapted to her new environment, though she was a little out of her depth when it came to the expatriate community's social life. Then she met Will Truesdale and found herself falling in love. But like so many others still living in Hong Kong, Will's past is devastating. Arriving shortly before the Japanese invasion in 1941, Will soon became involved with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But the war changes everything. Will is sent to an internment camp while Trudy remains on the outside, both struggling to do what they can to survive.
For me, the best parts of The Piano Teacher were the evocative portrayal of Hong Kong and Lee's marvelous prose style, particularly her use of the present tense when describing past events. I found this technique to have been executed extremely well (it's very hard to do convincingly!) and it was extraordinarily effective in conveying just how important that tragic time period was for the people who lived through it and how it continues to affect them a decade later. The book is definitely more about people and how they change in order to survive than it is about plot. One does exist, but it feels almost like a sidenote. Lee's characters are very realistic, but I must admit that I never really cared for any of them on a personal level. I didn't actively dislike them, but they weren't the sort of people I could really connect with; I felt more like an observer and didn't have much sense of being invested in the story.
Overall, I enjoyed The Piano Teacher even if I wasn't blown away by it. The writing is beautifully done, the two story-lines playing off of each other very nicely. Lee captures the vibrancy of Hong Kong in the 1940s and '50s to the extent that it almost becomes its own character in the novel. The plot is almost nonexistent as what is important to the story are the characters and their relationships to one another. War is a terrible thing and sacrifices and decisions must be made in the name of survival, but afterwards those choices will have to be lived with. Lee understands this and her characters show it. The Piano Teacher makes for an impressive debut. And while the book didn't quite work for me because I felt so detached from the characters, Lee's work shows great promise and I enjoyed her style immensely.