Something about Janice Y.K. Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher, whispers, “Watch me.”
Populated with a cast of “wandering global voyagers,” Lee unfurls her story, set in Hong Kong during and after World War II, layer by layer and in cinematic snippets. Captured in clipped, almost abbreviated language, “The Piano Teacher” paints vivid pictures in quick strokes.
Lee, who is of Korean heritage, was born and raised in Hong Kong and educated at Harvard. She writes with a director’s eye. Her timing is ingenious and controlled, and she knows exactly how much she’s willing to reveal from one moment to the next.
The eponymous piano teacher is Claire Pendleton, a newly arrived émigré and the provincial young wife of a British government engineer whom she married “to escape the dark interior of her house, her bitter mother.” She arrives in 1952 Hong Kong with myriad preconceived notions about the “unscrupulous, conniving” locals. But the city is nothing as she expected and she finds herself especially wide-eyed over the affluent Chinese, “the ones who seemed English in all but their skin color.... She hadn’t known that such worlds existed.”
Hired by a wealthy Chinese family to teach piano to their 10-year-old daughter, Claire proves to be a discerning kleptomaniac. What begins as an “accident” – a valuable porcelain rabbit unintentionally gets knocked into her large bag – ends in theft when she takes the treasure without any further deliberation.
By the next month, Claire has squirreled away “more than thirty costly necklaces, scarves, ornaments, perfume bottles.” The more Claire poaches, the more she literally steals into a closed Hong Kong society she does not yet understand.
Roll back 11 years to June 1941: Lee’s signature shorthand – “forbidden fizzy drinks,” a “fraying but still belligerent peacock,” “chattering people in jackets and silky dresses” – captures the privileged life of Hong Kong’s elite just months before the Japanese invasion in December 1941.
Another newcomer has arrived – Will Truesdale, a Tasmanian-born Scot who’s landed east via India. Yet another party is on and Trudy Liang, a mixed-race Chinese/Portuguese heiress who effortlessly emanates sparkling energy, immediately claims him: “‘Finally, someone new! We can tell right away, you know.’”
Later, she warns him, “‘I hope I don’t destroy you.’”
Cut forward to 1952 when Claire meets an older, distant Will – who now walks with a limp – at another of Hong Kong’s signature soirees where newcomers are given a chance to ingratiate themselves into the ruling fold. “‘You shouldn’t lose ... that quality of seeing everything new,’” Will tells Claire just before they embark on an inevitable affair. “‘You could be different. You should take the opportunity to become something else.’”
Seamlessly, Lee directs the reader through both affairs, splicing back and forth between two different stories just over a decade apart. Trudy and Will are a glittering pairing of playfulness and adoration. But their laughter is short-lived when the war suffocates Hong Kong practically overnight.
Its global citizens are trapped in prison camps. Will is herded in, Trudy is allowed to stay out. Both are controlled by ruthless Japanese captors.
How each will survive the atrocities becomes both a personal choice and a lovers’ battle.
Postwar, Hong Kong quickly reclaims its tightly stratified shell. Survival has come at inexplicable costs. But secrets can’t be silenced forever, especially when the government is finally demanding answers to lost questions.
Now, because she’s there, because she’s there with Will, Claire cannot help becoming implicated.
Lee makes a well-calculated decision to reveal most of the earlier affair in present tense – adding greater urgency to the imminent war and the brutality it delivers. The postwar chapters, recalled in past tense, seem almost languidly unrushed. Toward the end of the book, as secrets tumble out, Lee purposefully plays with time and tense, adding an almost breathless quality as crumbling facades once hidden in brocade, taffeta and “guipure lace” reveal dire betrayals and heartbreaking revelations.
Despite a few errant details – the sheltered child of a privileged 1950s Hong Kong family would hardly mutter “dunno” to a teacher she’s just met; Claire and the Hong Kong doyenne have “afternoon tea” with scones and jam, not “high tea” which would mean noshing on meat and eggs – Lee has simply written a gorgeous epic.
And those haunting images of Trudy, Will, and the thieving piano teacher? Mark my words: Their celluloid versions should be coming soon to a theater near you!
Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.