- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

By Janice Y. K. Lee
Viking, $25.95, 328 pages

Location (location, location) is often as important to the success of a novel as it is, or used to be, to real estate. What otherwise might not hold our interest, or at least not to the same degree, does so because of the setting. And that is, I believe, in large part the case with Janice Y.K. Lee’s “The Piano Teacher,” a book set in Hong Kong, that unique metropolis that was for more than a century and a half a British colony that drew exotics from many other areas as if they were needed to offset the (surface) blandness of the Brits.

The plot? Begin with a pair of star-crossed lovers, add a war (WWII) and an occupying force, and see if you can find any grace under all that pressure.

In the book, the result is an always interesting and sometimes fascinating portrait of how some humans behave, and some others misbehave, in a world not of their making.

While many grovel, some resist, and it is to the author’s credit that their actions do not come across as stereotypical. And it is also to Ms. Lee’s credit that we’re not always sure just what a given character may do — or why.

Take, for example, the opening act, which is performed by Claire Pendleton, the piano teacher. Seeing that it happens on the first line of the first page, I’m not giving anything away by telling you it’s an act of kleptomania: “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 … into her large leather bag. What had happened after that was perplexing, even to her. Locket [her student] had been staring down at the keyboard and hadn’t noticed. And then, Claire had just … left. … She went home and buried the expensive porcelain figurine under her sweaters.”

It’s May 1952 and British newly-weds Claire Pendleton and her husband, Martin, a civil engineer, have been in Hong Kong for nine months. Posted there by England’s Department of Water Services to oversee the building of the Tai Lam Cheung reservoir, Martin, we are told, is dependable but dull (come to think of it, that’s a civil engineering stereotype, and unfair) and Claire, who has never been out of England before, is a passion flower yearning to blossom. (Hmm, another stereotype. But, as I said above, their actions are not cliched.)

Martin Pendleton may be good with water, but he’s a dud when it comes to fire, which is what Claire desires (along with her employers’ nice things) when she meets Will Truesdale, a fellow Brit with a sad but handsome face and a past that’s even sadder. Just pages later, in a section dated June 1941, the first of the annoyingly numerous flashbacks that provide the infrastructure of this first novel, we begin to learn about that past.

Suddenly, it’s 11 years earlier and we meet Will as he meets Trudy Liang, a Eurasian knockout (“… the mother a Portuguese beauty, the father a Shanghai millionaire …”). At first Will is cautious, because Trudy is what, back in the Midwest, we used to call a woman with a past (but then how many Eurasian knockouts did we know?). Eventually, he can’t resist, and they become lovers.

The Japanese invasion — that took place the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor — is still six months away, but the handwriting is already on the bamboo wall. Soon Hong Kong is occupied, and all the non-Asian residents begin scuttling around, deciding whether to go or to stay, to cooperate or to resist as best they can.

The Will-Trudy love affair continues, intensifies, and then he, as a British citizen, is designated an “enemy civilian,” as are all his fellow countrymen, plus Americans, Dutch and Panamanians. But Trudy, who fits in none of those boxes, is free to move around the city after Will and the other enemy civilians are interned in increasingly miserable and unhealthy quarters.

From this point until near the end, Janice Lee’s novel sparkles, if that word can be applied to descriptions of such abhorrent human acts as those she paints into her miniature “Guernica”-like portrait of war. As good as her imagined re-creations of wartime in the city of her birth are — and they are very good — they can’t touch her accounts of human suffering and misery that spill out of her pages like blood from a fresh wound.

None of this information comes sequentially. Rather, it is revealed as Claire Pendleton learns more about why this fascinating and emotionally scarred man she loves is the way he is. While clearly capable of handling a far more important occupation, he works as a driver for the wealthy, but almost equally troubled Chen family, whose daughter Locket is Claire’s piano student.

It turns out that Will knew the Chens years ago, and they knew both him and Trudy, whose ghost haunts all the pages. And when we finally learn what Victor Chen did — or may have done — it seems intended to explain why Claire gets light-fingered whenever she’s in their house. It’s not a symbolism that worked for me, but it might for some readers.

What also didn’t work for me was the flashback-flashforward business.

In fact — sorry, Ms. Lee — I would have been just as happy, maybe even happier, without the weedy piano teacher, and more than content to read about the love affair of Will and Trudy chronologically.

The saving grace of this otherwise fine book is Janice Lee’s ability to set the scene and to develop character within it. How did someone who didn’t live through that era re-create it so vividly? As she told an interviewer, “I didn’t interview people about their experiences because I didn’t want other people’s facts to interfere with my fiction. I was very careful about that. I did read books by survivors and so I found out things that happened in the camps — daily life, schedules, activities.”

And, as to the verisimilitude of Hong Kong society in that era, “I am a voracious reader and I came across some books that had been written in those times. I was so interested in the details of the time, and the details that interested me were not the minutiae of the war but all the stuff around it — what types of parties people were having, who they invited, what they wore, what they ate and drank. It’s hard to get that sort of detail from history books, so I got them from memoirs, old newspapers, and movies too. I wanted to know how long the trip was from London to Hong Kong, and how many stops and where the stops were, and what they ate on the boat. These are the details that, for me, make a novel come alive.”

While I may not have been totally taken with “The Piano Teacher,” I eagerly await her next performance.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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