Viking Flights of Fiction
Winter 2009
Cover image of The Piano Teacher
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The Piano Teacher

A Novel
Janice Y. K. Lee

A gripping tale of love and long-buried secrets set in war-torn Hong Kong

"Rarely does one encounter a debut work as beguiling and assured as Janice Lee's The Piano Teacher. Rich with intrigue, romance, and betrayal, this wonderfully written, utterly captivating novel dazzles." —Chang-rae Lee

In 1942, Will Truesdale, an Englishman newly arrived in Hong Kong, falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their love affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Will is sent to an internment camp, where he and other foreigners struggle daily for survival. Meanwhile, Trudy remains outside, forced to form dangerous alliances with the Japanese—in particular, the malevolent head of the gendarmerie, whose desperate attempts to locate a priceless collection of Chinese art lead to a chain of terrible betrayals.

Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong and is hired by the wealthy Chen family as their daughter's piano teacher. A provincial English newlywed, Claire is seduced by the heady social life of the expatriate community. At one of its elegant cocktail parties, she meets Will, to whom she is instantly attracted—but as their affair intensifies, Claire discovers that Will's enigmatic persona hides a devastating past. As she begins to understand the true nature of the world she has entered, and long-buried secrets start to emerge, Claire learns that sometimes the price of survival is love.

Janice Y. K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong and went to boarding school in the United States before attending Harvard College. A former features editor at Elle and Mirabella magazines in New York, she currently lives in Hong Kong with her husband and children. The Piano Teacher is her first book.

June 1941

It begins like that. Her lilting laugh at a consular party. A spilled drink. A wet dress and a handkerchief hastily proffered. She is a sleek greyhound among the others—plump, braying women of a certain class. He doesn't want to meet her—he is suspicious of her kind, all chiffon and champagne, nothing underneath, but she has knocked his glass down her silk shift ("There I go again," she says. "I'm the clumsiest person in all Hong Kong") and then commandeers him to escort her to the bathroom where she daubs at herself while peppering him with questions.

She is famous, born of a well-known couple, the mother a Portuguese beauty, the father, a Shanghai millionaire with fortunes in trading and money lending.

"Finally, someone new! We can tell right away, you know. I've been stuck with those old bags for ages. We're very good at sniffing out new blood since the community is so wretchedly small and we're all so dreadfully sick of each other. We practically wait at the docks to drag the new people off the ships. Just arrived, yes? Have a job yet?" she asks, having sat him on the tub while she reapplies her lipstick. "Is it for fun or funds?"

"I'm at Asiatic Petrol," he says, wary of being cast as the amusing newcomer. "And it's most certainly for funds." Although that's not the truth. A mother with money.

"How delightful!" she says. "I'm so sick of meeting all these stuffy people. They don't have the slightest knowledge or ambition."

"Your name? And how do you know the Trotters?"

"I'm Will Truesdale, and I play cricket with Hugh. He knows some of my family, through my mother's side," he says. "I'm new to Hong Kong and he's been very decent to me."

"Hmmm," she says. "I've known Hugh for a decade and I've never ever thought of him as decent. And do you like Hong Kong?"

"It'll do for now," he says. "I came off the ship, decided to stay, rustled up something to do in the meantime. Seems pleasant enough here."

"An adventurer, how fascinating," she says, without the slightest bit of interest. Then she finishes up her ablutions, snaps her evening bag shut and firmly taking him by the wrist, waltzes—there is no other verb, music seems to accompany her—out of the powder room.

Conscious of being steered around the room like a pet poodle, her momentary diversion of the moment, he excuses himself to go smoke in the garden. But peace is not to be his. She finds him out there, has him light her cigarette and leans confidentially towards him.

"Listen, I'll be at the races at the Wongs' box [tomorrow]. Do you care to join us?"

"The Wongs?" he asks.

"Yes, they're my godparents," she says impatiently. "Are you coming or not?"

"All right," he says. This is the first in a long line of acquiescences.

Will muddles his way through the club and into the upper tier where the boxes are filled with chattering people in jackets and silky dresses. He comes through the door of number twenty-eight and Trudy spies him right away, pounces on him, and introduces him to everybody. There are Chinese from Peru, Polish by way of Tokyo, a French man married to Russian royalty. English is spoken.

They watch the races. She wins a thousand dollars and shrieks with pleasure. She insists on giving it all away, to the waiters, to the bathroom attendants, to a little girl they pass on the way out. "Really," she says disapprovingly, "this is no place for children, don't you think?" Later she tells him she practically grew up at the track.

Her real name is Prudence. Trudy came later when it became apparent that her given name was wholly unsuitable for the little sprite who terrorized her amahs and charmed all the waiters into bringing her forbidden fizzy drinks and sugar cubes.

"You can call me Prudence, though," she says. Her long arms are draped around his shoulders and her jasmine scent is overwhelming him.

"I think I won't," he says.

"I'm terribly strong," she whispers. "I hope I don't destroy you."

He laughs.

"Don't worry about that," he says. But later, he wonders.

—from The Piano Teacher

release date: January 2009