Book review: The Piano Teacher

I selected this book in anticipation of my upcoming trip to Hong Kong. This came up in The Guardian’s list of Top 10 books set in Hong Kong, and this line convinced me to read this among the choices: “Fashionable Hong Kong … the arrival of war … an engrossing and detailed historical novel.” (Yes, it had me at ‘fashionable’.)

I imagined something along the likes of In the Mood for Love and I wasn’t disappointed.

The story: Claire and her husband arrive in Hong Kong from England in 1952. For work, she applies as a piano teacher for the powerful Chen family, whose wealth and connections ensure their place in British (and later, Japanese) society.

As in Wong Kar Wai’s films, writer Janice Y.K. Lee has the talent to sensualize even the most mundane events. Consider this paragraph:

Victor and Melody Chen lived in the Mid-Levels, in an enormous white two-story house on May Road. There was a driveway, with potted plants lining the sides. Inside, there was the quiet, efficient buzz of a household staffed with plentiful servants. Claire had taken a bus, and when she arrived, she was perspiring after the walk from the road to the house. The amah had led her to a sitting room, where she found a fan blowing blessedly cool air. A houseboy adjusted the drapes so that she was properly shaded. Her blue linen skirt, just delivered from the tailor, was wrinkled, and she had on a white voile blouse that was splotched with moisture. She hoped the Chens would allow her some time to compose herself. She shifted, feeling a drop of perspiration trickle down her thigh.

I wish Ms. Lee persisted in this style and in her initial plot, which is about love in the time of war. Later, she introduces a crime element, primarily through the Crown Collection subplot involving priceless Chinese antiquities and artifacts, but it was more a distraction, both in the overall storyline and her writing style.

Coincidentally, I was reading this book when Pam referred me to the Inquirer article on the Manila Massacre. Hong Kong wasn’t spared by Japan’s atrocities during World War II, and Ms. Lee aptly paints a horrifying picture. She provides a rich and vivid history of Hong Kong during that period, and for that alone, I was completely enamored by this book.

* * * *

Excerpt from the first chapter:

May 1952

It started as an accident. The small Herend rabbit had fallen into Claire’s purse. It had been on the piano and she had been gathering up the sheet music at the end of the lesson when she knocked it off. It fell off the doily (a doily! on the Steinway!) and into her large leather bag. What had happened after that was perplexing, even to her. Locket had been staring down at the keyboard and hadn’t noticed. And then, Claire had just . . . left. It wasn’t until she was downstairs and waiting for the bus that she grasped what she had done. And then it had been too late. She went home and buried the expensive porcelain figurine under her sweaters.

Claire and her husband had moved to Hong Kong nine months ago, transferred by the government, which had posted Martin at the Department of Water Services. Churchill had ended rationing and things were starting to return to normal when they had received news of the posting. She had never dreamed of leaving England before.

Martin was an engineer, overseeing the building of the Tai Lam Cheung reservoir, so that there wouldn’t need to be so much rationing when the rains ebbed, as they did every several years. It was to hold four and a half billion gallons of water when full. Claire almost couldn’t imagine such a number, but Martin said it was barely enough for the people of Hong Kong, and he was sure that by the time they were finished, they’d have to build another. “More work for me,” he said cheerfully. He was analyzing the topography of the hills so that they could install catchwaters for when the rain came. The English government did so much for the colonies, Claire knew. They made the locals’ lives much better but they rarely appreciated it. Her mother had warned her about the Chinese before she left—an unscrupulous, conniving people who would surely try to take advantage of her innocence and goodwill.

Coming over, she had noticed it for days, the increasing wetness in the air, even more than usual. The sea breezes were stronger and the sunrays more powerful when they broke through cloud. When the P&O Canton finally pulled into Hong Kong harbor in August, she really felt she was in the tropics, hair frizzing up in curls, face always slightly damp and oily, the constant moisture under her arms and knees. When she stepped from her cabin outside, the heat assailed her like a physical blow, until she managed to find shade and fan herself.


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