“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?
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.