The Piano Teacher is a story of British, American and other expats in Hong Kong and the local wealthy Chinese who were all caught in a tremendous struggle for survival, during the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s.
In March 1939, Japan dropped bombs on Hong Kong territory, destroying a bridge and a train station. Japanese occupation of Hong Kong began in December, 1941, after 18 days of fierce fighting against imposing Japanese forces who invaded the territory. The occupation lasted for 3 years and 8 months, when Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War.
All the characters are caught in a complicated struggle for survival during extremely brutal Japanese administration during the occupation. There is a constant tug between integrity and submission, for the sake of survival. The story is interesting and is placed in a historical context that is important and yet not a lot is written about it. There are times when the author gives interesting insights into the characters.
Some aspects of the story emerge with clarity and are interesting. For instance, during 1940s and 1950s, the extent to which stereotypes and prejudices played a role, in an outwardly diverse place like Hong Kong, is interesting. “The Indians had been brought over by the British, of course. Pakistanis ran carpet stores, Portuguese were doctors, and Jews ran the dairy farms and other large businesses. There were English businessmen and American bankers. White Russian Aristocrats, and Peruvian entrepreneurs – all peculiarly well traveled and sophisticated – and of course, there were the Chinese, quite different in Hong Kong from the ones in China”. Similarly when occupiers came, they divided the immigrant population by race and accordingly assigned living quarters and other privileges. Author has done good research to convey the brutality of the occupiers and their impact on innocent people.
But unfortunately, there are many limitations. The book meanders and the real plot begins only after a reader sticks through slow moving and boring beginning. There is too much of vague dialogue that seems to be going nowhere, there are portions of the book that do not flow well. The characters are not well developed and they lack depth. There isn’t a single character that a reader can identify with, root for, and turn the pages to see the character survive the occupation. This is a huge limitation in the book. The occupiers are clearly bad, brutal, and loose in the end. That part of the story is very clear and well developed. Almost any reasonably well told story would have had survivors that a reader is rooting for and is eager to see them come through this horrific ordeal. Character’s humanness and limitations would only make them more real, not distant. But characters in the book feel too distant. As a reader, you feel no empathy, no dislike, no hope, nothing for them. Then there is the piano teacher. The book has her title but she has no role whatsoever. The story could have been told without her presence.
The story just does not grip you in anyway whatsoever. You flip the pages and it matters little how it will end. It is extremely disappointing. This is a story with an exciting plot and tremendous promise that simply failed to live up to its potential.