One man, two women. Wartime, danger, betrayal, torture. Bejewelled parties, sumptuous gowns, reptilian scheming, illicit love.
Janice YK Lee's debut novel, The Piano Teacher, reads so much like a film that you can cast the major parts (suffering Englishman, Eurasian heiress, crusty old headmistress) in your head as you sail along.
The place is Hong Kong. Half of the story unfolds at the beginning of World War II, when Will Truesdale, newly-arrived, begins an affair with a spoiled, vivacious heiress, Trudy Liang.
The shadow of war grows ominous; the Japanese win a quick victory. Will is interned as an enemy civilian, while Trudy has to show what she's made of by currying favour with a loathsome official of the Japanese military police. Does that make her a hero or a collaborator?
A decade later, an embittered and demoralised Will falls into an aimless affair with Claire Pendleton, the title character. The young wife of a dull engineer, she's found work for herself teaching piano to the child of a rich Chinese couple, Victor and Melody Chen.
Will's status has plunged: he's their chauffeur. Melody is a cousin of the long since vanished Trudy, and through this connection, Claire learns about the earlier affair. It seems clear from the start that the timid piano teacher is no match for the memory of the dazzling siren.
Lee knows how to dispense with the minor characters in a few quick strokes.
All the characters are, in fact, broadly drawn, familiar types. The author has cited Ang Lee's 2007 movie Lust, Caution among her influences, and you can detect that film's rich stew of poisonous wartime intrigue in the novel's mix of danger.
Yet this Lee isn't out to produce a potboiler. Her aim is a thoughtful exploration of character under duress. Clearly she's no hack.
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