I think I’ve made a good start at what I hope to be able to dub my Summer of Asian American Literature. Even though summer has not yet begun, I have gotten through two novels and hopefully have the momentum to get through several more.
Only recently, I set up alerts to for Asian American literature so Janice Y.K. Lee’s one-year-old novel, The Piano teacher, only caught my eye this year when I saw it on a table at Chapters (bookstore). The beautiful evergreen dress against lily white skin on the cover caught my attention, and then the title, and then the author’s name. Finally, I noticed the lattice and lotus design that cues you this is a Chinese story. It wasn’t on a bargain books table, so I waited for the library to deliver it to me–it was quite popular!
The novel is set in two very different times in Hong Kong society although they were only ten years apart. The earlier setting is during the last years of World War II when Japan conquered China and the British colony of Hong Kong and expats were sent to internment camps while the Chinese fled or tried to live amongst their hated Japanese conquerors. Ten years later, the survivors try to hold the society together but there are cracks and it is all viewed through the eyes of the new British arrival, Claire Pendleton, a piano teacher. She meets Will Truesdale, one half of the couple at the center of the earlier time. The other half is irresitably, mysterious Eurasian socialite, Trudy Liang.
The chapters alternate between the two time periods, weaving together the stories and details in a way that makes the novel seem like an epic tragedy. I wished it were happier but it has gut-wrenchingly tragic parts. In addition, there is some intrigue throughout: what ever happened to the Crown Collection of art? And how evil are the “villians”?
The first “expat novel” I read was W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and I loved it. It is a rich experience to see how the expat community in Hong Kong viewed their Chinese neighbours. In The Painted Veil, the main characters were soon whisked to isolated countryside China, but the exposition in The Piano Teacher was lengthy. People who never thought it would come to be find themselves living in Hong Kong and the ways they adapt, bring their life to the island, have similarities across time, in large part because Hong Kong has long been a very unique area of China. Finally, for both the British female protagonists of the two novels, their China experience ended up being one of profound self-realization, kind of interesting plot twists at the end.