Unravelling the past in post-war Hong Kong

2009-04-08 00:00

The Piano Teacher is Janice Y. K. Lee’s debut novel. It’s a remarkable book from a first-time writer who has managed to weave a compelling story spanning a decade. And the author has cleverly chosen one of the most event-filled decades ever perhaps: 1941 to 1952.

The novel is set in Hong Kong, one of the last places to be drawn into World War 2, when the Japanese invaded this multicultural city in 1941.

The story begins, however, when Claire Pendleton arrives in the city in 1952. She’s newly married to

Martin, a man who inspires in her nothing more than duty. He’s a civil servant sent to take up a post among the British ex-pats in the city. Claire finds herself with many hours to fill, as Martin’s job keeps him preoccupied. She had married Martin as a logical progression from leaving her parent’s house. But something seems to be missing in her life. She takes a job as a piano teacher to the daughter of a rich Chinese family, the Chens. But she’s unable to find fulfilment even in teaching so she begins to steal small but valuable objects from the family. Until she meets the family’s distant English chauffeur, Will Truesdale.

Lee flips between the present and the past to unravel the reason behind Will’s enigmatic persona. Lee weaves the threads of the intriguing world Will inhabited before the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong: a world which was dominated for him by the captivating Trudy, a Eurasian who picked only what she wanted from the two cultures she sprang from.

This novel is a great read. Lee writes well with sparse and insightful clarity and unravels history with her characters’ experience of turbulent wartime. It’s a long time since I’ve read a book that I didn’t want to end. The Piano Teacher is such a book.

Janet van Eeden

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