Not the novel by Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek that was the basis for a movie starring Isabel Huppert. That one was about an Austrian pianist/teacher who embarks on a masochistic relationship with a student. This one, perhaps more conventional but also emotionally strenuous, is set in Hong Kong in 1953 and during World War II. This piano teacher is a pretty and naive Englishwoman named Claire Pendleton who arrives in the English colony as the new bride of Martin, a dull bureaucrat with the Water Board. Claire has married Martin to escape her narrow suburban existence: she gets more than she bargained for.
Claire’s only student — she’s not a very serious piano teacher — is Locket Chen, the daughter of a very wealthy pair of Chinese. Teaching the piano is incidental to Claire’s role in the novel, since what she really does is blunder around and expose some of the nasty goings-on in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion. Eight years after the peace, many of these have been papered over if not forgotten, but Claire’s unusual position as an English near-employee of immensely wealthy Chinese gives her a social fluidity that hastens nasty revelations.
The more vivid sections of the book, loosely alternating with the 1953 sections, are the ones narrating Will Truesdale’s love affair with Trudy Liang, the Eurasian femme fatale of the colony. Elegant, feckless, and immensely rich, Trudy captivates the handsome Will. Lee does an excellent job of describing the layers of mutual incomprehension between English and Hong Kong Chinese. Trudy (who, like Claire, occupies a liminal position) can move between both worlds, tolerated for her glamor and her wealth, but knows she fits nowhere. When the invasion arrives, she behaves pragmatically, to Will’s shock.
This is a novel of secrets, adeptly hinted at and gradually revealed. The moral landscape of Hong Kong is enormously complex, determined not only by the conditions of wartime but by the Chinese and English cultures in conflict. The Trudy/Will story line is much stronger than Claire’s — a naive protagonist allows the author to be startled by or misunderstand situations, but often that protagonist is not terribly interesting. Still, The Piano Teacher is lively and readable. Not unlike Joseph Kanon’s The Good German, it puts terrible pressure on its characters, with interesting results. The Piano Teacher features less action, but more love affairs. And lots of food, which we’re told is the Chinese obsession. You have to love it when Trudy proclaims, “Darling, if you miss a meal, the light quite goes out of the day.” Ominously, she makes this declaration while Will is on furlough from a prison camp, and it’s clear there will be many dim days ahead for both of them.