The Japanese have an expression that "a man is whatever room he is in at the time". The Piano Teacher explores this concept, raising many questions about the nature of our identities and the choices we make. This beautiful, mysterious and literary piece weaves together a group of characters over the course of two very different decades in Hong Kong. The story begins in the 1940s with the glamorous pre-war years, spinning into the disaster and despair of the Japanese invasion. The narrative then contrasts this tale with that of the 1950s, the decade of recovery. The author shows us many of the same individuals in the framework of these two vastly different times, exploring how people can change so drastically depending on circumstances. Riches, politics, corruption, imprisonment and other extremes all play a role in molding the characters.
In the 1940s, the story focuses on Trudy, a Eurasian (half Portuguese and half Chinese) and her English boyfriend Will. Trudy is a young, privileged socialite with all the right connections. Yet when the Japanese invade, Will is placed in a prisoner camp. Trudy's connections enable her to get by much better than others, but not without great sacrifice to her relationships and to her honor. When the story flips to the 1950s, we meet Claire, a young newlywed fresh to the world and to society. Claire gets a job as a piano teacher for a wealthy Hong Kong family. Through that link, she meets many of the characters who survived the grisly war years. As Claire learns who she is, she also begins to unravel the mystery of other characters' former lives. The story shows how some people compromise their character because they feel trapped, particularly in times of great stress. When are such compromises acceptable? Is anyone immune? Perhaps the best part of the book is that it leaves us to answer these questions for ourselves. The story touches on loss, love and perception of the self while giving great insight into a rarely discussed time period. This is historical fiction at its best - beautifully written and just begging to be discussed.
Recommended by Erica Jesonis