There is much to like in a book that appropriates a cinematic swath of the not-too-distant past and brings it into sharp focus. Why, then, does Janet Y. K. Lee’s first novel The Piano Teacher (Viking, 2009) leave an unsettled and incomplete aftertaste?
Despite the author’s seemingly glamorous recent background, she pulls no punches in delivering grim accounts of tortured lives lived beneath the conquering Japanese. These landmines of agony (based mostly upon historical fact) are saved for later in this story — a story so slow to take flight that it’s tempting to set this book aside for one better steered. But patience is its own reward, in this case delivered in the form of World War II’s Colonial Asian horror, and two romances. The romances are set apart by a decade but unified by geography and a common, curiously impassive love interest, Englishman Will Truesdale. What Trudy and Claire see in Will’s typically distant, sometimes damaged sensibilities is, if not mysterious, untold. (Perhaps he was more handsome than the author is willing to write, though Lee’s powers of description are often strongest when describing faces, bodies and clothing).
A few weeks later, she asked, ‘Why me?”
“Why anyone?” he answered. “Why is anyone with anyone?”
Desire, proximity, habit, chance. All these went through her mind, but she didn’t say a word.
“I don’t like to love,” he said. “You should be forewarned. I don’t believe in it. And you shouldn’t either.”
There’s a conscious and mostly successful attempt to paint Hong Kong as the background insinuating itself subtly into the foreground. When this succeeds, the result highlights the story’s cinematic canvas.
Dominick is one of those queer Chinese who are more English than the English, yet has no great love for them. Educated in them most precious way in England, he has come back to Hong Kong and is affronted by everything that is in the least bit crass — which is to say, everything — the swill on the streets, the expectorating, illiterate throngs of coolies and fishmongers.”
When less successful, the narration seems lifted from a period travel piece. Interspersed between the upper class chit chat, gossip and internment camp negotiations are stark descriptions that will shock you to sudden attention.
A young woman, Mary Cox, says her husband was grabbed by Japanese soldiers and made to clean up after bodies had been dragged along the street, shedding body parts like animals. They had to clear all the bodies before they got in the water supply and spread disease. He came home soaked in blood and bits of decaying flesh and wept before falling on the sofa, exhausted. He was gone the next morning. She hasn’t seen him since.
As the story unfolds, the reader must keep track of evolving plot threads and also adapt to style shifts. These shifts take the form of shorter segments rather than the full conventional chapters (e.g., the chapter labeled “1943”), which have the flavor of characters’ journal entries embellished into short story fragments. This later style might well have worked better throughout, since the style alternates between 50’s and 40’s scenes. Instead when they do appear later in the book, it’s a curious shift that compounds the temporal switchbacks that have occurred throughout.
Then there is the matter of the book’s title. True, the principal narrator is piano teacher Claire, but despite references to childhood practice, Claire’s connection to music is coincidental. Instead her teaching sessions with the daughter of a well-off family, Locket, are memorable for her interactions with household staff, descriptions of food and clothing, and vaguely hinted-at dark moments from the past. Music plays no role in this; in fact, much later, when Claire is asked to play for a group of adults, she is desperate to find a way to avoid playing. You will not be alone if you finish The Piano Teacher without a single lingering melody.
This may have been as intended. The character who is “trying to become invisible, so that she will be all the more visible around Will” dimly senses that her skill as a pianist is a sort of deformity, not unlike Will’s limp from a wartime injury. But this doesn’t explain why the skill that gives her entree into the central plot becomes the role given billboard status for the novel. Writ large, it’s as though the novel’s wartime privations become a power for dissociation and confusion in which Lee’s prose is complicit.
A passage representative of this discipline describes a loyal amah who followed a family after they had been interned during the war. She brought them food and supplies into the camp in a large picnic basket. Because she had known them from childhood, she brought food every week:
. . . until one week she had not appeared. The day after she was to have come, the family received the same picnic basket. Inside was a small hand, wrapped in dirty towels. “They thought it was a funny joke. Of course”, [Will] said, “the truly sadistic Japanese were the exception, but they were all we could think about and all we ever remember. We never knew what happened, whether she had offended someone or done something wrong or was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The story was his apology. She knew he didn’t owe him one. This was how she knew his affection.
Italics mine. The narration ends there, and moves impassively on to describe the couple’s arrival at Macau Station and a striking portrait of a governor, “with mustache and white hat.” The reader is swept along in such eddies of helplessness, of disorder dissolving into surface order.
The Piano Teacher succeeds in drawing parallels between the fateful directions taken in the affairs and the fate that befell Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation. But because its characters are themselves not always capable of making sense of what has befallen them, the book lacks a certain clairvoyance of purpose, or at least enlightened telling of the adversities.
One is tempted to point to stereotypes of Asian cultural passivity, a much-decried Western cliche to explain this, but a more plausible explanation (especially considering that the author is Asian herself) is surely that Lee’s characters are too much a part of the landscape that envelopes them: like narrator Claire’s self-avowed chameleon-ism, allowing fate to wash over them, accepting it with lament, wry comment, disdain, or simply striving to look ahead to the normalcy that it’s hoped will befall them just as surely. Perhaps the stereotype belies a more careful interpretation. William James wrote in “Varieties of Religious Experience” :
When, for example, Achilles, about to slay Lycaon, Priam’s young son, hears him sue for mercy, he stops to say:
“Ah, friend, thou too must die: why thus lamentest thou? Patroclos too is dead, who was better far than thou…. Over me too hang death and forceful fate. There cometh morn or eve or some noonday when my life too some man shall take in battle, whether with spear he smite, or arrow from the string.” *
* Iliad, XXI., E. Myers’s translation.
Then Achilles savagely severs the poor boy’s neck with his sword, heaves him by the foot into the Scamander, and calls to the fishes of the river to eat the white fat of Lycaon. Just as here the cruelty and the sympathy each ring true, and do not mix or interfere with one another, so did the Greeks and Romans keep all their sadnesses and gladnesses unmingled and entire.
Lee leaves convincing traces of a deeper, if calmly laconic, insight. “So that’s how it goes, [Will] thinks. That’s the beginning of how it all changes. We become survivors or not.” And later:
The reunion is sweet, the late afternoon sun slanting through the window, the flat horizon of the sea and the boats floating in the harbor, and Trudy, right here, right next to him. He has thought of her for so long, missed the feel of her skin and the smell of her breath, that he moves as if he’s in a dream, She is quiet, more than usual, and seems skittish. They are both too sapped, too thirsty, to ever be quenched by something as mundane as the physical.
But wait — this is Will, who has done little to earn his place in the hearts of the women he was typically at pains to claim he did not love. Whether betrayed by him, or simply wounded by his stubbornness, Trudy deserves more. His other lover, the adulterous but increasingly sympathetic Claire seems to wander through the plot looking for her own denouement; when it comes as an anticlimactic exit, some readers won’t care, or find the exit to be a cynical symbol of the character’s failure to carry a greater burden of the story.
At times this is lovely work, drawn in pastels of a fateful stillness. Perhaps Lee’s next canvas will be equally broad, taking from a history no less rich, no less stark, but wielding a sharper brush, filling out characters capable of making just a little more sense of what they experience.
(c) 2009 by Mark Underwood