War, Hong Kong, Love and a title that just might be a bit of a turnoff, but really shouldn’t be. This is The Piano Teacher by Janice K. Lee, a book firmly set in the past that bends genres and shows both sides of colonialism.
I picked this book in a bookshop when home in Dublin. Buying quickly, I chose by author or by testimonials of authors I admire. Inside this book, Elizabeth Gilbert had been quoted as saying: “This does exactly what a great novel should do – transports you out of time, out of a place… A rare and exquisite story”. And seeing as Ms Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ novel was no.2 of the New York Times Bestseller list for over 88 weeks, purchasing this book was rather a rapid affair.
Last time I was home, I had bought nine books, and this was the last book to be read. Despite the effusive praise, something about the title ‘The Piano Teacher’ put me off. When I think of a piano teacher, I have visions of a pedantic, socially-maladjusted woman convinced of her ‘better breeding’ due to her superior musical appreciation.
A better title might have been ‘Hong Kong’s War Secrets’ as this is essentially what the novel is about. It is a beautifully written, compelling ‘historical fiction’ style novel which shows life in Hong Kong at two separate times: during World War II when the Japanese invaded the English colony in 1941; and over a decade later, we see Hong Kong through the eyes of a newly-wed English piano teacher who arrives there in 1952.
What Janice Lee does so cleverly is showing how colonisation is viewed both by the locals, as well as by the colonisers. She illustrates how surprised the British were to find their royal subjects less than ‘jolly grateful’ for being turned into servants on their own land and watching their country’s best being bled for export to her Majesty. For example, Clare, the English piano teacher mused on her arrival in 1951: “The English government did so much for the colonies. They made their lives so much better, but the locals rarely appreciated it. Her mother had warned her about the Chinese – an unscrupulous, conniving people who would surely try to take advantage of her innocence and good will.”
The author was born and grew up in Hong Kong to Korean parents. In an interview at the back of the book, she says that while the historical events in the book are real, this book is not “necessarily historically accurate,” adding that all the characters are fictional, save one key colourful character ‘Trudy’ who was inspired by Emily Hahn, an American writer who lived in Hong Kong in 1941.
‘The Piano Teacher’ does not neatly fit into any category. It does not profess to be historical fiction, and while love is a central theme – it is not a love story, but a story of war and the lives of people who are impacted by war. It reminds us how senseless and cruel war is, how it is often the brave who suffer the most, and that it is the most odious of characters who collude with oppressive regimes who profiteer.
Some of the characters in the novel who suffer in the war often limp on – surviving – but never fully living again. This novel shows us the anguish of those whose loved ones ‘go missing’ and how – even ten years later – a man can leave his house unlocked, hoping against all hope that the only woman he could or ever wants to love might return.