Book review : The Piano Teacher

This is the second novel by Janice Y.K. Lee that I’ve read.

A few years ago, I enjoyed her excellent The Expatriates, so I was curious to read this novel set in Hong Kong in the lead-up to World War II and the time of the Japanese occupation.

Lee is from Hong Kong and covered modern life on the bustling island extremely well in The Expatriates, so I knew I would be in good hands for a masterful backdrop and sense of place for this work of historical fiction.

In this novel, Lee is adept at portraying the glamour and sophistication of pre-World War II Hong Kong society, the cruelty of the Japanese occupation and the silence and secrecy dominating the post-war years.

The novel unfolds in dual storylines through the eyes of different protagonists a decade apart. In 1942, Will Truesdale is newly arrived in Hong Kong when he meets the sophisticated, wealthy and enigmatic Trudy Liang. Trudy is the Eurasian daughter of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman and a famed Portuguese beauty who abandoned her years ago.

Will is quickly drawn into Trudy’s charmed social circles, but wealth and power are no protection when Japanese troops invade the island, and everyone is forced to make hard ethical choices if they want to survive the occupation.

Eleven years later, recently married Claire Pendleton arrives in Hong Kong from England. Marriage to an older man has allowed her to escape her dull and provincial life, but she quickly finds herself out of her depth among the sophisticated expatriate and diplomatic circles of Hong Kong. Through a series of rash decisions,

Claire finds herself drawn into the delicate balancing act of secrets, recriminations and silence that have reigned on the island ever since the end of the war.

I’m not sure that all apects of character development worked, and there were times that the otherwise well-written novel lagged for me as a reader. But the sense of place and the deep knowledge of the pre-war and occupation period in Hong Kong more than made up for some storytelling lapses.

This is the powerful story of love, betrayal and survival against the backdrop of a brutal war and foreign occupation.

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