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Fiction

The Piano Teacher by Janice YK Lee

piano teacher

“That’s us, the British colonials, battling against our circum­stances, always,” the formidable Edwina Storch says to Claire Pendleton over tea one sweltering afternoon. 

It’s 1952 and 28-year-old newly wed Claire Pendleton has just arrived in Hong Kong with her civil-servant husband Martin. Thrust into a new and international world, the once provincial Claire from Croydon finds herself transformed by her surroundings. She takes a position as a piano teacher to Locket Chen, the daughter of wealthy socialist Chinese parents. Teaching piano to Locket is not Claire’s only preoccupation, as she pocketed the family’s little collective items and quickly becomes intrigued by the family’s much elderly English driver, Will Truesdale. 

Claire’s love affair with Will is interwoven with flashbacks to the early 1940’s, during the onset of Japanese hostilities and Hong Kong’s swift fall, to his ex-lover Trudy Liang, a Eurasian beauty with secrets of her own. Trudy Liang is charming, insulting, scheming and above all captivating. In one of the novel’s retrospective scenes, at a party on the beach, conversation ceases as “they all watch her, rapt, as she plunges into the sea and comes up sleek and dripping — her slim body a vertical rebuke to the flatness of the horizon between the sky and sea.” 

In December 1941, six months after Will met Trudy, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, and Will was sent to the POW camp with many other foreign nationals. Conditions were bad in the camp and Will became head of the group to organise the POWs in their day-to-day barely humane existence. Will came across a secret about a Crown collection which is hidden away before the start of the war to avoid the collection from falling into wrong hands. General Otsobu, whom Trudy taught English and became his kept mistress, is looking out for herself and her cousins Dominic during war time to earn favours from the occupier and keep them alive in the lawless society at war. 

‘People have always expected me to be bad and thoughtless and shallow, and I do my best to accommodate their expectations. I sink to their expectations, one might say. I think it’s the ultimate suggestibility of most of us. We are social beings. We live in a social world with other people and so we wish to be as they see us, even if it is detrimental to ourselves,’ She laughs, lifting her face towards his. Her eyes, her skin, they glow, distracting him. ‘What do you think?’ 

While Trudy compromised her dignity and integrity, Will stay true with his integrity and refused the pass (permission) given by General Otsobu to be released from POW prison, and remain in prison with his comrades. Yet the past cannot remain hidden for long as Claire’s involvement with Will grows, Claire soon finds herself at the centre of a web of secrets, lies and murder, in which both her lover and the Chens are irretrievably entangled. 

Wasn’t love some form of narcissism after all?

Janice YK LeeMy verdict: 3/5

Overall it’s a riveting story. The characters are irritating. Will with his ambivalent attitude towards Claire; Trudy, a social butterfly who has no inner anchor and life principles. Claire, the pilfering thief, unfaithful wife of a respectable expatriate. The characters are shaped in such a frivolous way that makes it difficult to invest in them. The facile way Claire got away with her infidelity is ludicrous. The dialogues are at times choppy. The endless partying and coquettish banters at first intriguing, most times irritating. Probably the commendable parts of the story are the subtle emotions and love depicted in the far eastern cultural context, the brutality of war, and the haunting first love are all captured beautifully. 

About the writer:

Janice YK Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong and attended Harvard College. She worked as a features editor at ‘Elle’ and ‘Mirabella’ magazines in New York before becoming a full-time writer. A Korean-American, she currently lives in Hong Kong with her husband and children. The Piano Teacher is her first book and voted as Waterstone’s New Voice of 2009.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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