Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher is the author’s debut novel, and as a piece of fiction it could use some seasoning. Still, Lee—who will be reading from the novel at the Galleria Barnes & Noble on January 21—succeeds in communicating her thesis that if war is hell, it’s a special circle of hell where lines between friends and enemies are blurred and can become indecipherable. Love can be hell as well, and Lee nails that too.
The novel is set in Hong Kong in the early 1950s, though the greater part of Lee’s story takes place in the same location during World War II, when the Japanese conquered Hong Kong and occupied it for years. The titular teacher is Claire, a young Englishwoman newly arrived in Hong Kong. With her husband busy at his government job, Claire begins an affair with Will, an older expat who has (bum, bum, bummm) a dark past. Will was once involved with a Eurasian woman named Trudy, but that relationship ended when Will was imprisoned and Trudy took up with a brutish Japanese leader who pressed her for national secrets that Will refused to help her obtain. In the end, everyone’s past rather hurriedly catches up with them.
From a literary standpoint, the strongest aspect of the novel is the character of Trudy, a strikingly appealing but desperately lonesome figure who is kind enough to be honest with Will about the fact that he shouldn’t rely on her. “You made me want to be the worst kind of man,” says Will to Trudy in a statement that neatly captures the desperate pain of destructive relationships. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you, and that’s the most terrible thing in the world. So I had to get away from it. I had to get away from you, to preserve myself.”
Lee’s other major female character, Claire, feels hollow in comparison. The earliest sections of the novel, when Claire is a fresh-faced newlywed just off the boat, are awkward; in an effort to depict Claire’s innocence, Lee begins the book as though it were a Choose Your Own Post-War Adventure for young adults. Claire’s also consigned to a fate that seems to me unnecessarily dismissive; were I Lee’s editor, I might have advised her to scrap the whole 1950s frame and concentrate on the heart of matters with the wartime story.
Still, there is more than enough of that story to make an impact. Lee’s greatest insight in The Piano Teacher is that “right” and “wrong”—both in love and in wartime, and especially in wartime love—are shifting values in a kaleidoscope, and that what seems right at one time can seem terribly wrong at another. “We all make choices,” says Claire in what feels like a summary statement, “but we have to stand by them and acknowledge responsibility if we find ourselves on the wrong end.”