Head’s up: I am going to throw down some spoilers. So if you haven’t read this book and intend to, maybe skip until you read it.
We’re shifting from post-colonial narratives to colonial era narratives, from Zadie Smith’s multicultural London to Janice Y.K. Lee’s Hong Kong in the 1940s and ’50s. I sat in my pink Snuggie this afternoon and immersed myself in Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher, which was very much a voyage into a darkly sophisticated past. It’s concerned with English Will Truesdale, who arrived in Hong Kong just before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an act which precipitated the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, then a British colony. Will falls in with the lovely, vivacious Eurasian Trudy Liang (product of Portuguese and Shanghainese parents) in 1941; she haunts him still in the early 1950s, when he is romancing Claire Pendleton, a married Englishwoman out of her depth in Hong Kong. Given the book’s title, Claire is ostensibly the protagonist, as she teaches piano lessons to the daughter of a couple with whom Trudy and Will are connected; however, the more interesting storyline concerns Trudy and Will and how they each react to the Japanese occupation.
The book reminded me of the movie “The White Countess,” which concerns an outcast Russian countess and a blind American in Shanghai, but in the pre-war era. I suppose it’s the international mix of characters, the focus on expatriates who seem bewildered by Chinese customs and impose their own practices on the setting. The colonial mentality of ownership permeates both works, and in The Piano Teacher there are no prominent Chinese characters who have not been steeped in either American or British education systems and culture.
The book also raises the interesting question of what kind of person one truly is, under duress. Will Truesdale judges Trudy harshly because she exploits her mixed nationality and unusual social gifts for favors from the ruling Japanese; he pleads with her to join him in the internment camp set up for Americans, British, Belgian, and other Allied citizens. Yet, years later, during his affair with Claire, he is a remote person filled with regrets. He’s a complicated character, and so are Trudy and Claire. Given the narrative structure, the reader is more in the head of Will and Claire than Trudy, thus making Trudy the most inscrutable character. Others are revealed to be more nefarious than they first would seem. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be obvious that Locket, the girl who takes piano lessons from Claire, is the daughter of Trudy, rather than of Melody and (nefarious!) Victor Chen, but I guessed that pretty early. Lee doesn’t disguise too much in her book, though. When Will isn’t still with Trudy in the 1950s, it seems fairly clear that Trudy doesn’t make it through the war. It’s just the means by which that happens that gets revealed later.
Lee writes vividly about the realities of wartime Hong Kong. She describes what I imagine to be accurate depictions of Japanese atrocities. There are gruesome details (severed hands are a lighter example), which I won’t dwell on, but which situate the narrative in heavy times. By grounding her novel against World War II in its early days, she gives her characters high stakes to deal with. Claire is something of a stand-in for the reader, since she is younger than many of the characters and lived in England during the War. When she naively probes for tales of wartime deprivations and violence, it’s as though the reader is hinting at the dark past, wanting a taste but not the full-blown memories.
I have to say, this was such a refreshing read for me, compared the the last book I finished, New Moon, the second Twilight book. (NB: Why do they insist on calling it The Twilight Saga? Barf.) I don’t know that I can bring myself to write more on the subject of Twilight, but it was terrific to read a well-written novel and it reminded me that there are more of those out there.