This book, The Piano Teacher, by debut author, Janice Y K Lee was set in two time frames – 1941-3 and 1952-3 and tells the story of English piano teacher’s involvement in a complex web of lies, love, politics and war in 1950’s Hong Kong. The novel traces the happenings of the key characters, Chinese, Gwelo and Eurasian, in Hong Kong preceding and during the invasion of Japan and then the piano teacher, Claire, trips over some of the aftermath of war experiences as she arrives in Hong Kong with her civil servant husband and becomes accidentally embroiled in the story lines. It is a well written and fascinating piece of historical drama, researched well by the author who has not directly experienced these events but whose research feels to me gives an authentic account of life under occupation.
The brutality of the occupation is underscored by examples of gross behaviour by the soldiers but a far more engrossing story is the compromises and betrayals which individuals undergo to survive in such conditions. It begs the question do we ever really know the right way to behave in times of war. Is collaboration with the enemy a reasonable and defensible course of action if death (or the belief that this would occur) is the alternative or must we keep principle to the foreground. From my safe distance in post British Hong Kong I feel decisions taken in war time are very complex and often we find ourselves in paths not entirely of our own making but ones we have to continue once the journey has begun.
All these issues are raised well in this novel which is well worth a read. I found the story convincing, the charaters rich and engrossing and the glimpses of modern day Hong Kong some 60 years ago fascinating.