The Piano Teacher by Janice Lee

The Piano Teacher is a double story based in Hong Kong of a piano teacher’s affair that uncovers the complicated goings-on of the Hong-Kong elite during the Japanese occupation in World War II, ten years before. The many characters, some English expatriates and some local Hong Kong residents, can be caricatures: there’s a couple of lesbian school principals that is modeled almost exactly on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, minus the Picassos in the living room that is; the Brits have a stiff upper lip; the Asians are mysterious; the Japanese are cruel in person as well as their policies. And the love affair is not exactly fascinating: young woman, married to a perfectly nice man she doesn’t love (why did she marry him then?) falls in love with older man whoeeps her at arms length and continues the relationship to her doom despite his lack of interest. Why?

But within the limitations of the story I found the story of the Japanese occupation very interesting. The Japanese army corralled all civilian foreigners into a large prison where they were kept in very tough conditions (think 500-calories a day and non-working toilets) for years, with the occasional beheading and constant bribing to keep the fear level high. The author is able to recreate how prisoners organize themselves and survive  within the terrible limitations, complete with the jealousies of each nationality by the others, the petty conflicts over what little they have, and the joy when the cooks manage to invent new recipes based on banana peels.

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