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Review: The Piano Teacher, by Janice K. Lee
Penguin, 2009. 326 pp. $15

Claire Pendleton, newly married, accompanies her engineer husband, Martin, to Hong Kong, where he has a job designing waterworks. The year is 1952, before modern feminism, so convention dictates that Claire will live like other expatriate wives, sheltered, waited on, and expected to look the part but have no life separate from their husbands’—perhaps no inner life at all.

Victoria, Hong Kong, 1950, unattributed photo (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But Claire married Martin because he asked, and because marriage lets her escape a dreary existence in an England still enduring wartime restrictions, not to mention her fault-finding, disagreeable parents. So though she’s used to retreating into the background, Claire has the chance to emerge—and, to an extent, she takes it.

Hired by a wealthy merchant family, the Chens, to teach their young daughter the piano, Claire winds up falling through a cultural and emotional rabbit hole. For no apparent reason, almost equivalent to how she married Martin, she enters an affair with Will Truesdale, the Chens’ chauffeur.

Will’s employment is unusual, given that Chinese never hire Europeans for household tasks, but that’s only one mystery of many. It’s obvious that Will has led a remarkable past in which he’s suffered, but Claire can never get anything from him except physical passion, which, to her surprise, she craves.

Over time, she learns to reexamine her preconceived notions and prejudices about race, “foreigners,” and her new home, but at first, Hong Kong terrifies her:

Sometimes she got the feeling that Hong Kong was too alive. It seemed unable to restrain itself. There were insects crawling everywhere, wild dogs on the hills, mosquitoes breeding furiously. They had made roads to the hillsides and buildings sprouted out of the ground, but nature strained at her boundaries—there were always sweaty, shirtless worker men chopping away at the greenery that seemed to grow overnight.

What Claire doesn’t know, and what Will refuses to talk about, is that more than a decade before, he had a torrid affair with a beautiful Eurasian woman, Trudy Liang, cousin to the Chens. This narrative, including what happens after Pearl Harbor and the Japanese conquest of Hong Kong, alternates with Claire’s. The reader knows what she doesn’t, including how the invaders imprison foreign nationals like Will, and how that changes him.

But Claire senses a secret behind his stone wall and believes, correctly, that he’s a person capable of great feeling—except that he won’t love her or admit it if he does. This hardened position is the engine behind The Piano Teacher. As the wartime and postwar narratives finally mesh, the tension rises, and the novel’s themes emerge with even greater sharpness.

Lee explores the boundaries between integrity and the willingness to do anything to survive terrible circumstances. Other characters refer to Trudy and Will as “survivors,” perhaps with admiration, but that may not be a compliment. Racism figures heavily in Trudy’s story, for, as a Eurasian woman, she’s “exotic,” which, to certain bigoted Europeans, elicits fascination mixed with contempt. The Japanese too have their own view of mixed-race people.

Lee does a terrific job portraying colonial attitudes, not least spite, envy, and a hollow sense of superiority, which emerges in a dozen prejudices. Nonentities at home become lords in Hong Kong—and, after a while, act entitled to their elevation. The author’s spare prose plays well here, as she shows much with few words, whereas what’s unsaid carries great weight.

However, if Will’s past is the engine driving the narrative, his refusal to share any of it with Claire drags it down like a millstone. He’s a tough character, not especially likable. I doubt he loves Trudy, either; their relationship feels too brittle for that, and he’d rather die than make himself vulnerable.

Between that and Claire’s inability to stick up for herself, I nearly stopped reading twice. Her character, at least, follows an arc—she grows into herself, a little—whereas he seems to take pride in never changing, which becomes tiresome.

I don’t understand why she has an affair with him, even less why she puts up with him for as long as she does. Their liaison serves the plot, but I think it would have done better—and looked less convenient—if he’d cracked just a little, even if he tightened up again afterward. Let Claire hope for a glimmer based on what’s happened between them, not simply her own wishes. And I wonder how everyone in Hong Kong except Martin knows they’re sleeping together.

I do like the story and the way Lee depicts prewar Hong Kong and what happens to it, which I’d never read about before. I also admire the author’s subtlety, mostly, because she refrains from spelling anything out, leaving much between the lines. I feel involved in the narrative that way. But I would have wanted more and clearer clues to show how and why certain things happen and would probably have liked the novel more had Lee provided them.

Disclaimer: I pulled this book off my shelf, where it had sat, unread, for more than twenty-five years.