Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

As people who read this blog know, I like to read books about colonialism, especially the British in India and in Ireland. I can’t really explain why these books appeal to me, except as a part of my larger interest in books that deal with class issues. Colonial settings provide a double whammy when it comes to thinking about class, as they often feature class conflict within a group (higher and lower caste Indians, for example) and across groups (Indians vs. British).

The Piano Teacher is different territory for me, literally, as it’s set in colonial Hong Kong. It actually covers two different eras: the 1940’s, when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, and the 1950’s when the British were in control. The protagonist, an English expatriate named Will, is a mysterious man who navigates both eras with different coping strategies. The book also features Will’s two lovers: a Portuguese-Chinese woman called Trudy in the 1940’s and Claire (the piano teacher) in the 1950’s. All are outsiders in Hong Kong society, but really, who isn’t? In a society this complex, everyone is an outsider to some group or other. That’s what makes it so interesting.

This book will not make you a fan of Japanese soldiers. I am also just finishing up Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See, which if you can believe it, makes the Japanese sound even more brutal than they are in The Piano Teacher. But I am enjoying this expedition into colonial Asia. What’s next? The French in Viet Nam?

(Book 34, 2010)


Sarah Laurence said...

I looked at the Piano Teacher but didn't buy it.

I have an excellent recommendation for you although I've only just started: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. It's set in Japan 1799 with the Dutch traders. I'll be waiting for my husband, who teaches Japanese Politics, to read it too before we review it together.

Becky Holmes said...

Sarah, thanks! I will add this to my list.

Lisa said...

I really enjoyed this book--and loved the learning as much as the story. I though Trudy was such a great character.

Amused said...

I just finished this one a month ago and loved it too! Found it fascinating as it was a part of WWII I knew nothing about.

PattisPages said...

I highly recommend The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell if you haven't read it. It centers around the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, and I liked it better than The Piano Teacher.

Anna said...

I've been wanting to read this book since reading the reviews of a few of our WWII reading challenge participants last year. I loved Shanghai Girls, though that one scene with the Japanese soldiers made me ill.

I'll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

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