There are numerous means by which history can be recorded: oral history, paintings, poems, monuments, and, of course, the written word. While they all have their particular advantages and strengths, I find the written word most powerful, especially when put forth in the form of fiction. Experiencing history through the narrative of fictional characters personalizes history and brings it to the level of the individual. In reducing history to mere facts and figures, much is lost, and the novel is capable of preventing such a reduction.
The Piano Teacher, written by Janice Y. K. Lee, is just such a novel. Set in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong and alternating between the years 1941/1942 and 1951/1952, the reader is provided prose of the highest caliber with which Ms. Lee effectively recreates pre- and post-WWII Hong Kong, a city teeming with drama of every sort and serving as a nexus between East and West. It is within this setting that the story’s complex characters navigate romances, intrigues, and the general trials and tribulations of life. Of course, romance can manifest itself in many ways, and in demonstration of this point, take, for example, the following dialogue from the novel and between two lovers:
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.”
Wow. Now that is pure romance, no?
Of course, once Hong Kong is conquered by the Imperial Japanese Army in December of 1941, romance of any sort takes on quite different trappings. The forty-four month occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese was quite horrendous, and the reader is not spared the gory details. With such trying and overwhelmingly bleak conditions and with death constantly at hand, the true natures of the characters emerge.
Ms. Lee, by means of her skilled writing, transports the reader to Hong Kong of the 1940s and 1950s introducing a cast of characters who face many difficult challenges and choices, which by itself is very engaging. However and in addition to this, what I found especially interesting were the details of life on the island of Hong Kong before, during and after the war, a segment of history about which I knew very little, something that this novel has, to a certain extent, rectified.
Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill