The Piano Teacher is a complicated novel. On the surface, it’s about a love affair between two British ex-patriots in Hong Kong in 1952-3. Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong with her husband Martin at a time when the world is still recovering from WWII; Claire takes up work as a piano teacher for the daughter of a wealthy Chinese family, where she meets Will Truesdale, the Chens’ enigmatic chauffeur. The book jumps back in time between the 1950s and the beginning of WWII, when Will is interned in Stanley, a Hong Kong camp for enemies of Japan. On “the outside” is Tudy Liang, Will’s beautiful Eurasian lover.
There’s no doubt that Lee’s writing is beautiful. But there’s something lacking in this short, terse novel that I can’t quite put my finger on. First, I think it’s the tenses she uses when taking about each story: that which is set in the 1950s is in the past tense, while the war scenes are talked about in the present tense (confusing, no?) The interpersonal relationships of the main characters take a back seat to the horrors of Stanley camp (over 3000 people housed in a hotel with bad plumbing, bad food, and other horrendous conditions), as well as the brutal treatment of the British and Americans by the Japanese.
While the war scenes were sobering, I would have liked to have seen more of the relationship between Trudy and Will. I would have liked to have found out more about Will and Claire’s relationship, too: why are they drawn together, since they seem to have nothing in common? Too, there’s a lot that’s implied about what happened during the war, especially to Trudy and her cousin, Dommie; but we never find out for sure. And the “villain” in this novel wasn’t quite what I expected, either. His motivations for doing what he did are a little odd. But as I’ve said, the writing is beautiful, the research is superb, and the setting is fantastic. I just wish that Lee had done more with her characters, because they had so much promise.
Also reviewed by: Pudgy Penguin Perusals, Medieval Bookworm, A Guy's Moleskin Notebook