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Janice Y K Lee – The Piano Teacher

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War affects everyone involved in different ways, and sometimes it doesn’t just stop with those around at the time.

Publisher: Harper Press (Harper Collins)
Pages: 329
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-00-728637-9
First Published: 2009
Date Reviewed: 21st July 2010
Rating: 3/5

A few years after WW2, Claire moves with her husband (a marriage of convenience) to Hong Kong, setting herself up as a piano teacher for a local family. She starts to become acquainted with the community yet always remains on the outside. At one of these parties she meets Will, an Englishman employed by her own employers, and the two begin an affair. But Will is constantly distant and there’s something amiss about the Chen family. As the story unravels we are introduced to another tale – Trudy Liang ten years earlier, a beautiful woman who once called Will her lover.

Before reading The Piano Teacher I’d gone for a good few months without historical fiction and the setting of this book and the summer-read aspects meant that I read it incredibly fast. But speed-reading isn’t so much a positive thing with this book – you find yourself reading it quickly because there’s nothing to peak your interest. It isn’t until much later on that it begins to show promise. A big factor in this is that it is mostly era-driven. It’s the war that is paramount here. Lee has written her book akin to the way Victoria Hislop did a year earlier in The Return, it’s very much a case that the characters serve a purpose as vehicles – they are simply there to aid the explanation of the wretchedness of the war. However, unlike Hislop, who used a number of characters to explain different situations, Lee has focused on specific features, she mentions the bombing but focuses on the predicament of the civilians, for the most part the foreigners (Americans, Britons, Europeans) who were stuck in Hong Kong when the Japanese took over. The information is fascinating and horrid in it’s own right but as the focus is on the war you can’t help but feel disconnected from the characters for whom there are parties and a little love but not much else to recommend them to your memory.

Then it all changes. From era-driven the narrative nose-dives straight into the characters, suddenly they are everything and the war is still important but more the cause, it’s no longer in the spotlight. Where Claire was the only character available for comment there is now a crowd of willing participants.

By themselves the characters are fabulous. Claire begins a possible racist and ends as perhaps the most open-minded of the lot. It takes a while to warm to her and even then sometimes you want to change your opinion, but you can’t because you know that she knows of her flaws and that she’s struggling to work through them. Will’s aura is enticing and his distance and pain understandable, but maybe he could have handled things differently. The Chens remain unlikeable and plummet further as the story goes on, and Trudy, though but a memory, is an enigma.

Because the different aspects are so disjointed it’s easy enough to close the book at the end. You feel sad for what’s happened but because you weren’t acquainted with the characters for long enough it’s difficult to feel their plight beyond the general understanding that what happened was awful. Part of this can be explained by taking into account the book’s title – it doesn’t really say what the book is about as Claire (the piano teacher) is very much apart from the rest of the story even when she meets those involved. She develops into a strong character and the end suggests she would be an interesting person to read about further – only of course you can’t because the book has ended. Claire made a few people talk about the issues, but nothing she did caused anything that wouldn’t have happened anyway because although she gains information she never uses it. This book could have easily been called something in reference to Will, Trudy, her cousin, the Chens, or the war. It is so unspecific that yes, I do believe it impacts upon your enjoyment because you open the book having ideas of a completely erroneous nature.

Lee provides ample time to the different nationalities. She writes about a country ruled by foreigners but never slanders anyone, and when it comes to the invasion she simply details, never condemns. Her characters get on with everyone. There is still racism about but in most cases the characters have already rejected it.

Lee’s writing is lovely, not incredible, but noticeable. She prefers some words at strange times however, for example, “brackish”: “The sea was green and brackish” – the word is like a crack in an otherwise perfectly smooth pavement, it doesn’t fit in with the rest of her writing. The chapters move between tenses and while Claire’s flow well it seems that when it came to Trudy, Lee wasn’t sure how she wanted to write it. There are a couple of times when both styles are used in the same chapter and you find yourself reading the same sentences over to try to work out exactly what you’re reading.

I think that if you’re looking for a breezy summer read with a bit of substance you’ll be satisfied but in my personal opinion The Piano Teacher does not fill the criteria for a good political historical novel.

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