“I’ve known girls like you for years. You come over from England and don’t know what to do with yourselves. You could be different. You should take the opportunity to become something else.” (55)
The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y. K. Lee. Viking, 2008
(quotations in this book are from the Barnes and Noble NOOK edition.)
What makes people who they are? Is there one core self that remains immutable over time? Or might there be several potential selves lying dormant, waiting for the opportunity to emerge? What effect does place have on our identities, our conceptions of who we are?
Janice Y. K. Lee’s haunting 2008 novel The Piano Teacher explores these questions, among many others. The novel is set in Hong Kong in two different periods: the early 1940s, during the Japanese occupation, and the early 1950s, after the English are back in control of the colony. The piano teacher of the title is Claire Pendleton, a newly married 28 year old English woman who has come to Hong Kong in the early 1950s with her husband, a man to whom she is not attracted. She takes a job giving piano lessons to the child of Victor and Melody Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple. Eventually, she meets the Chens’ English chauffeur, Will Truesdale, and begins an affair with him.
We learn that ten years earlier, Will Truesdale moved to Hong Kong and fell in love with Trudy Liang, a wealthy, beautiful, and charming Eurasian woman. The novel switches back and forth in time, focusing on all three characters. One of Lee’s major focuses is the effect of World War II and the brutal Japanese occupation on the characters. While some characters show bravery and undying loyalty, many others descend into ugliness, into greed and betrayal.
While love and betrayal are perhaps the main themes of this novel, Lee simultaneously explores another issue: that of the unstable self. What happens to a person if they are unmoored from their home environment and everyone they know? Claire Pendleton muses on this question throughout the novel and finds herself changing in ways she had never imagined possible. She thinks at one point, “This is Hong Kong. I am a woman, displaced. A woman a world away from who I am supposed to be” (63).
When Claire first moves to Hong Kong, she is still unformed, having lived a sheltered life. She does not like the person she has been up until this point. She “wanted to be someone else. The old Claire seemed provincial, ignorant” (37). She senses that there is another Claire inside her, clamoring to come out, but this person was not able to emerge in the constraints of her English life.
“There had been times when Claire felt that she could become a different person. She sensed it in herself, when someone made a comment at dinner, and she thought of the perfect, acerbic reply, or something even racy, and she felt her mouth opening, her lungs taking in air so that she could then push out the words, but they never came out. She swallowed her thought, and the person she could have become sank down again, weighted by the Claire that was already too evident in the world. She sensed it when she held a glass at a cocktail party and suddenly felt the urge to crush it in her hand. She never did. That hidden person had ballooned up and deflated so often, the elasticity of her possibility diminished over time.”
Transplanted to Hong Kong, though, her submerged self starts to grow, like a formerly stunted plant that thrives in the heat and humidity.
“But this was the thing: she, herself, had changed in Hong Kong. Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony. Where the other Englishwomen looked as if they were about to wilt in the heat, she thrived, like a hothouse flower.”
The change goes much deeper than her looks. Unmoored from her familiar surroundings, she does things she never dreamed she would, such as having an extramarital affair with Will. It was as if “her old English self, with its defenses and prejudices, was dissolving in the humid, fetid environment around her.” She is strongly attracted to Will, and perhaps in love with him. However, she knows at some level that the real love affair she is having is with her newly emerging self.
“He didn’t have an idea of what she should be like. She was a new person—one who could have an affair, one who could be ribald, or sarcastic, or clever, and he was never surprised. She was out of context with him. She was a new person. Sometimes she felt that she was more in love with that new person she could be, that this affair was an affair with a new Claire, and that Will was just the enabler.” (65)
The combined influence of Hong Kong and her affair with Will transform Claire profoundly by the end of the novel. To be sure, she is more sophisticated and sure of herself. More interesting, though, is the way the ridiculous prejudices and narrow view of the world she brought with her to Hong Kong have begun to disappear. Her intellectual horizons and her view of world broaden immeasurably and she sees herself a thread in the larger web of humanity.
The Piano Teacher is about more than Claire’s transformation, of course. For starters, Claire’s emerging self was brought about at least in part by Will, who had previously been transformed by his relationship with Trudy. Trudy, in turn, depended on Will to define herself in a way that was not self-destructive. I know that I am not doing justice to the complexity of this novel in this brief discussion. The main point I want to make here is that it seems to me that Janice Lee is emphasizing in this novel not only the malleability of our selves, of who we are, but also the way our identities are created through our relationships with others and with our environments.
In case it wasn’t clear, I loved this book and would highly recommend it. The portrayal of the English people in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion was fascinating to me. So, too, were the complicated characters and their relationships with each other. Trudy Liang is a particularly interesting character. If you decide to read the book, don’t give up if you find the beginning less than compelling. The characters and themes at first seemed shallow to me, but the war reveals all of the complexity beneath the surface.
What do you think about the issue of the self? Do you think you would be essentially the same person no matter what circumstances you find yourself in? Or do we, as Janice Lee suggests, have a number of competing selves inside us, waiting for the right opportunity to emerge?