Writers of historical novels face a double challenge. They must accomplish fiction's primary task of illuminating human nature, while simultaneously presenting readers with an accurate portrayal of a bygone era. In her debut novel, "The Piano Teacher," former Elle magazine editor Janice Y.K. Lee succeeds impressively on both fronts.
Two story lines, both set in Lee's native Hong Kong, weave through the novel. One takes place during the carnage of the Japanese invasion and occupation of the island in 1941, and the other takes place a decade or so later. As the novel opens, it is 1952 and Claire Pendleton, a British newlywed, has just arrived in Hong Kong with her stolid husband, Martin, who has been posted there to work with the Water Authority. The tropical heat, so debilitating to most British, causes the normally repressed and socially inept Claire to thrive "like a hothouse flower."
Lee writes, "Her hair had lightened in the tropical sun until it was veritably gold. She perspired lightly so that her skin looked dewy. ... She lost weight so that her body hung together compactly and her eyes sparkled, cornflower blue."
Claire finds work giving piano lessons to the daughter of a wealthy Chinese couple, and soon embarks on a love affair with the couple's chauffeur, an inscrutable middle-aged British national named Will Truesdale. For all her attractiveness, Claire proves to be psychologically unbalanced, a malady curiously manifested in kleptomania.
Flashing back to 1941, Lee portrays Will Truesdale in the months after his arrival in Hong Kong. An executive in a British bank, Will is single and popular with both the expatriate community and with Chinese locals. More significantly, he is in love with the novel's most captivating character, a Eurasian beauty and prominent Hong Kong socialite named Trudy Liang. Trudy is vivacious and scandalously outspoken.
Along with thousands of other British, Will is soon interned in a Japanese prison camp of unspeakable horrors. He suspects that Trudy -- still on "the outside" because she is not British -- is collaborating with the Japanese conquerors. As the narrative follows Trudy step by step to her ultimately tragic fate, Lee forcefully conveys to the reader a sense of impending danger. Unexpected yet plausible plot twists occur, in fact, in both story lines, lending the novel an overall undercurrent of suspense.
Perhaps the book's strongest feature is its theme: moral choice during torturous times of war is not black and white, with the result that sometimes one must strike bargains in order to survive.
Katherine Bailey is writing a book titled "With a Critical Eye: Essays on Fiction." She lives in Bloomington.