Monday, June 14, 2010

The Piano Teacher by Janice Lee

I recently joined a book club with some work colleagues.

I had been a previous book club in university but that turned quickly into “book club”: an excuse to get together at the pub and drink red wine and conveniently forget to read the book. Besides, one co-bookclubber wanted to read She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb and as it wasn't 1999 and as we are no longer in high school, we cannot make excuses for that kind of thing, booksnob that we are.


This book club is meeting for the first time at a favourite haunt in the Annex on Wednesday Night and I have high hopes. Why? Because we read a book that has a lot of points for discussion.

The Piano Teacher with its startling cover, comparison to Michael Ondaatje and caption that “Sometimes the end of a Love Affair is really just the beginning” gives the impression of an exotic, perhaps tortured love story set in the orient, with colour and lovemaking and regret and loss.

It brought to mind the Painted Veil ( that gorgeously-spun book by W. Somerset Maugham) on first contact.

Reading it, however, left me with quite a different impression.

This is not a mysterious beach read. This is not the enigmatic Memoirs of A Geisha: what with its romanticized world of the mystic orient and its slowly unfurling love-story.

Instead, it is a troubled, troubled story about lust, greed, power and corruption: set against the canvas of Japanese occupied Hong Kong in the early 1940s.

Flipping to and fro from 1950s Hong Kong and the viewpoint of the English Piano Teacher,Claire Pendleton, to the wartime experiences of her love, Will Truesdale: a Britishmen helplessly in love with a Eurasian goddess, the socialite Trudy Liaing.

Will and Trudy’s wartime experience vibrates well into the next decade and, readers surmise, into generations thereafter.

This is a wonderfully written book with sparse, taught prose and a real “feel” for the time and place. Lee has done her research and her words just breathe the essence and place she is writing about.

A sometimes-problematic approach, Lee’s descent into war-time Hong Kong and back to the early 1950s runs very smoothly.

A mystery involving the famed and fictional “Crown Collection” ( an abundance of wealth the Japanese long to capture from British occupants) is the centre of many different, tragic lives.

The story’s thesis is not so much about love experienced and lost rather the lengths people will go to sustain propensity, status and wealth. Lee’s descriptions of the foreign English internment camps erected by the Japanese invaders were harrowing and sad. Indeed, I knew very little about this slice of the war before reading about it in the book.

The main problem ( and its hard to say problem because this may well be Lee’s intention ) is how unlikeable all of the characters are. I had trouble identifying with the exotic and sexualized Trudy, the proud and stiflingly honourable Will, and especially the social-climbing Claire: who pilfers trinkets and scarves from her employers when she arrives to teach daily piano lessons.

Perhaps I had trouble identifying with the characters because I refused to see what drastic measures and actions they took in relation to myself. It is hard to imagine how one would act and what lengths they would go to in order to survive during a war-occupied regime. Lee’s characters often cross the line between mere survival and survival-with-something-to-gain and it was this dark and deeply upsetting perimeter that mostly affected me.

There is a wealth of discussion strewn through the book and it will make a fabulous book club pick for any group! The edition I have comes complete with a book club guide but anyone reading the book will find points popping up straight of the page.

Readers of Wayson Choy, Lisa See and Ondaantje will not be disappointed!

1 comment:

Julie said...

Hi Rachel,

I want to email you, but I can't find your address! Would you mind dropping me a line, please? I have a book and a request.