Friday, January 07, 2011

The Piano Teacher: A close reading of Character

Lee, Janice Y. K. The Piano Teacher. London: HarperPress, 2009.

I didn't expect very much from The Piano Teacher, honestly. I chose it at the bookstore because it cost only £1 on clearance and because the title reminded me of two wonderful books I read last year, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier and The Piano Tuner. (Both of those are magnificent books, and I highly recommend both). The 1941 Hong Kong setting of The Piano Teacher reminded me of The Piano Tuner, and, well, there we were.

The Piano Teacher begins with a theft. The first one is an accident, and the subsequent pilferage opens the door into one of two meticulously organised character studies explored in alternating chapters and sections as the book progresses. Claire, the thief, is a British bride newly arrived in Hong Kong who takes up piano teaching to occupy her time. The other is Trudy, half-Portugese and half-Chinese, a 'languorous slip' of a woman (128) who remains in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation, teaching English to one of the officials and learning to play the games of politics and survival.

Through the rising shadow of the war and Japanese occupation, and through their shared love for a young man named Will, Claire and Trudy are both brought to life over the pages of Lee's fine novel (the characterisation reminds one of du Maurier's Rebecca, though Lee's style is in no way imitative). Although it begins slowly, the book gains momentum as it progresses, and the ending is well-crafted.

Simple and occasionally laboured, The Piano Teacher is a fine novel, and I look forward to reading more by Lee, who, I am sure, will become an even more delightful author as her writing matures.

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