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Monday, Jan. 12, 2009

Lust and Betrayal

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Memories of colonial Hong Kong inspire mixed feelings for those who grew up in the country during British rule. For former Elle Magazine book editor Janice Lee, the prosperity, glamour and devastation of mid-century Hong Kong had a special allure, of which few physical traces survive. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong before its hand-over to China. When she began The Piano Teacher, a work of historical fiction set in the country during one of its most turbulent periods, she relied mostly on journals, archival photos and films like Ang Lee's Lust, Caution to help piece together the scene, as well as a few of the quaint establishments that remain in older parts of the city.

The Piano Teacher begins during the period of renewed prosperity ushered in during the 1950s; the city was reasserting its role as Asia's most important financial and commercial center. It begins with Claire, an English piano teacher whose services are secured by a prominent Chinese family living in Hong Kong. She soon embarks on a love affair with the family's driver, a British expatriate with a dark past that shuttles the story back in time, to the sultry glamour of the 1940s. The book paints a vivid portrait of Hong Kong's privileged classes, and sets the scene for a heady romance marred by an interlude of bitter betrayal as the country falls under a devastating Japanese invasion and four-year occupation.

For a first-time novelist, Lee's book has enjoyed a remarkable reception. The Piano TeacherEmpire of the Sun and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. The author will give a reading of her work at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Shorewood on Jan. 19 at 7 p.m.has been translated into 18 languages and compared by some critics to J.G. Ballard's