“It started as an accident.” This first sentence from The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee lands squarely on my list of best opening lines. With the exquisite intricacy of carved jade, The Piano Teacher entwines the stories of two timelines. As the story folds in toward the past, the first line of the earlier timeline echoes that of the more present. “It begins like that.”
Set in the post-war Hong Kong of 1952, the story of Claire Pendleton is told in the conventional, literary past tense. As the novel curves in upon itself, the earlier, war-time story of Trudy Liang unwinds in a telling and captivating present tense. Linking the two timelines is Will Truesdale. As the stories unfold, it becomes apparent that the story of Trudy is locked in Will’s memory, inextricably present for him.
A debut novel, The Piano Teacher uses language with elegance and precision. Lee avoids confusion and digression while navigating two timelines with grace. Every line in the novel appears to be chosen with care. Even the names of many characters can only be deliberate – either in aptness or in irony. Claire initially stumbles myopically through the, to her, alien new world of Hong Kong. Will remains true to a memory, the memory to which he has forfeited his will. Trudy’s “real name is Prudence. ‘Trudy’ came later, when it became apparent that her given name was wholly unsuitable for the little sprite who terrorized her amahs and charmed all the waiters into bringing her forbidden fizzy drinks and sugar cubes.” And, surely, it is no coincidence that a child is named for a pendant that contains a picture – a memory.
Arriving as a new bride from England in post WWII Hong Kong, Claire harbors no real illusions about her marriage.
She had accepted Martin’s proposal to escape the dark interior of her house, her bitter mother railing against everything, getting worse, it seemed, with her advancing age, and an uninspiring job as a filing girl at an insurance company. Martin was older, in his forties, and had never had luck with women. The first time he kissed her, she had to stifle the urge to wipe her mouth. He was like a cow, slow and steady. And kind. She knew this. She was grateful for it.
Her bigoted, parochial mother has prepared Claire to detest Hong Kong; her upbringing has informed her with unquestioned notions of British Imperialism, even as the Empire lies dying. To Claire’s surprise, she discovers a seed of openness within herself. “But this was the thing: she, herself, had changed in Hong Kong. Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony.” Yet, to Claire, the world becomes topsy-turvy when she finds herself taking a job as a piano teacher for Locket Chen, the daughter of a wealthy Chinese couple.
…what had been eye-opening was the sight of the affluent Chinese, the ones who seemed English in all but their skin color. It had been quite something to see a Chinese step out of a Rolls-Royce, as she had one day when she was waiting on the steps of the Gloucester Hotel, or in business suits, eating lunch with other Englishmen who talked to them as if they were the same. She hadn’t known that such worlds existed. And then with Locket, she was thrust into their world.
Lee does not shy away from the ugly implications of race and caste in mid-century Hong Kong. Claire’s Hong Kong is a diversely populated world for which her village upbringing had failed to prepare her. “The Indians had been brought over by the British, of course. Pakistanis ran carpet stores, Portuguese were doctors, and Jews ran the dairy farms and other large businesses. There were English businessmen and American bankers, White Russian aristocrat, and Peruvian entrepreneurs…and, of course, there were the Chinese, quite different in Hong Kong from the ones in China, she was told.” While the upper-class society of Hong Kong arranges itself by caste rather than race, ethnic distinctions slink beneath the surface. Note that it is acceptable for the European expatriates to socialize with the wealthier Chinese because they are “quite different from the ones in China.” Yet, through Lee’s narration, we find that no ethnic group is exempt from prejudice. Trudy’s cousin Dominick “is one of those queer Chinese who are more English than the English, yet has no great love for them. Educated in the most precious way in England, he has come back to Hong Kong and is affronted by everything that is in the least bit crass, which is to say, everything – the swill on the streets, the expectorating, illiterate throngs of coolies and fishmongers. A hothouse flower, he thrives only in the rarest of society circles, around damask napkins, and clear, ringing crystal.” Trudy herself is the daughter of a Portuguese mother and Chinese father. Conversation between Will and an English friend shortly after Will’s meeting with Trudy is revealing.
“She’s Eurasian, isn’t she?” Simonds says. “Watch out there. It’s not as bad as dating a Chinese, but the higher-ups don’t like it if you fraternize too much with the locals.”
“That is an outrageous statement,” Will says. He had liked Simonds up to that point.
“You know how it is,” Simonds says. “At Hong Kong Bank, you get asked to leave if you marry a Chinese. But this girl sounds different, she sounds rather more than a local girl. It’s not like she’s running a noodle shop.”
Into this turbulent colonial mélange, the Japanese invasion thrust another spear of ethnic discord. Japanese propaganda flyers emphasize the ethnic bond between Chinese and Japanese, yet, enmity between the two countries goes back for generations. As the invasion and conquest of Hong Kong progress, allegiances blur and shift.
The mystery of the Crown Collection is woven throughout both timelines. Priceless Chinese artifacts were collected by the British government in Hong Kong and housed in the Governor’s mansion. When invasion becomes inevitable, the collection is “hidden away and the location would be divulged to three people in three very different situations so that no matter what happened, at least one would survive.” Of course, this partitioning of knowledge fuels the fire of conflicted loyalties and betrayal; the repercussions echo through the decade of the novel.
In the post-war period, Claire’s own accumulation of pilfered small treasures echoes the acquisition of the Crown Collection. As Claire leaves behind the stunted English village girl, she begins to acquire a new identity. The first layers of the person she will become are stolen from Melody Chen, Locket’s mother. Yet, the plot creases again. Many of Claire’s pilfered belongings are European in origin; in effect, Claire is stealing her own heritage.
Claire’s evolution is erratic and stumbling. She has exchanged the stifling safety of her parents’ home for an equally stunted marriage. “And then going home to Martin. With him, the private was mundane, a chore, some heavy breathing and shoving, not at all pleasurable or romantic.” In this light, it is almost inevitable that she should begin an affair with Will. An older man with a mysterious past, Will is an experienced colonial; his life encapsulates the world that Claire still finds exotic. Yet, he is so interior that their affair is virtually one sided. “She was out of context with him. She was a new person. Sometimes she felt that she was more in love with that new person she could be, that this affair was an affair with a new Claire, and that Will was just the enabler.”
Given the depth and growth (or collapse) of the main characters, it is odd that Lee leaves several of the minor characters quite flat. Otsubo, the head of the Japanese gendarmerie, is a rather two-dimensional, predictably lecherous villain. Victor Chen, as well, has the potential, given the plot, to be revealed as more complex than he is written.
However, these are the rare missteps in an otherwise lovely and multi-faceted novel. The Piano Teacher is intensely readable, yet possesses the complexity and depth necessary for a satisfying literary meal.