Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Piano Teacher

There are few places in the world quite like Hong Kong. It is hard to think of a place that is more of a fusion of East and West. My two visits preceded the hand over to China, so perhaps it is becoming another international city like Shanghai, but I suspect it remains something of an amalgam. The historical legacy is less than pristine of course. The city that grew up around the harbor was a prize in a successful war between drug runners (Britain and its companies) and a state attempting to maintain sovereignty (China.) Not that the US can point many fingers have stolen a good chunk of land from Mexico and even more from the Native Americans. Anyway, this legacy and the decaying colonial society in the city make for an ideal setting for novels.

Janice Y.K. Lee well uses the complicated social structure of the city her subtle debut novel, the Piano Teacher. The story revolves around a pair of love affairs, one that starts just before World War 2 and the other in the 1950s. In the later affair, a English newlywed looking for something to do accepts a job teaching piano to the daughter of a pair of wealthy Chinese. She meets Will Truesdale and eventually begins a torrid affair with him. This gets her into the small society of the island, where she finds that the smallness makes it hard to hide an affair. What's more Will and her employers appear to be involved in the disappearance of valuable antiquities during the Japanese occupation. Flashbacks to the previous affair show a decadent social class ignoring the growing threat only to find themselves at the gentle mercies of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Lee's prose is descriptive and I especially like her ability to create so many distinct characters and her subtle ways of communicating character, plot and emotion. She can be quite indirect in her plot development, not in an annoying way, but certainly one that can be missed by an inattentive reader. The writing is evocative and engaging, balanced between description and moving the story forward. A fine read.

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