Monday, June 7, 2010

The Piano Teacher - Janice Lee

I'm always interested to find a book that focuses on a period in time that so many people are familiar with, but finds an aspect of it about which very little is generally known. The Piano Teacher does exactly that, as it focuses on the Japanese 8-month occupation of Hong Kong during WWII. During this time, over 7,000 British soldiers and civilians were kept in prisoner of war camps, and subjected to malnourishment, sickness, and execution. As in Nazi Germany, the need to survive caused those outside the camps to compromise and negotiate in ways that call into question the idea of conscious choice. The Piano Teacher takes place in two different time periods. The first focuses on Will, an Englishman who travels to Hong Kong and falls madly in love with Trudy, a Eurasian socialite. When the Japanese take-over, Will is sent to the camps, while Trudy remains on the outside, clueless in many ways to the horrors Will is suffering, but at the same time trying her best to navigate her own politics of survival. The second part of the story (told in almost alternating chapters, so the book has a somewhat chaotic non-chronological feel) takes place ten years later. Claire, a piano teacher, has just moved to Hong Kong with her husband and begins teacher the adolescent daughter of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman. She eventually meets Will, who works for the same family, and begins an affair filled with secrets and betrayal. I particularly liked the way Lee told this story, with pieces unraveling here and there - there was a great deal of suspense and building anticipation. I found both Trudy, and especially Claire, quite annoying and whiny at times, and Will's understandable detachment difficult to stomach. Often so much of the pain and misunderstanding stemmed from a character's pride or simple unwillingness to just communicate in the face of incorrect information - and I find it frustrating when years of pain could be avoided if someone had just spoken a sentence instead of remaining stubborn. But, then I suppose, there would be no story.

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