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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 4/25/2009

Dave Beck
04/25/2009

Our book reviewer Nancy Pearl says readers with a taste for exotic locales and tales of secrecy and surprise shouldn't miss the new novel "The Piano Teacher." It's set in Hong Kong in the years just after World War II. KUOW's Dave Beck speaks Nancy Pearl about her latest reading adventures.

Readers with a taste for exotic locales and compelling plots shouldn't miss Janice Y. K. Lee's The Piano Teacher (Viking, 2009). All the ingredients for an addictive soap opera are here: love, death, honor, betrayal, secrets and surprises, but Lee's assured writing takes this historical novel beyond its sudsy underpinnings. Six years after the end of World War II, just–married Claire Pendleton leaves her home in England to accompany her husband Martin as he starts a new job in Hong Kong. Although Claire enjoys the active social life offered by her fellow expatriates, she needs something more to fill her time, and gets a job teaching piano to Locket Chen, the only child of Victor and Melody Chen, fabulously wealthy Hong Kongers. Claire becomes intrigued with Victor's mysterious and enigmatic British chauffeur, Will Truesdale, and their relationship blossoms into a kind of love. She soon realizes that her lover's past is filled with secrets, and only gradually does she learn about his life during World War II, when the Japanese occupied the island. The novel moves back and forth between the 1940s and the 1950s, between war and peace, and we (along with Claire) gradually learn how the terrible events of the past have informed so much of the present. The scenes set at Stanley Prison, where the Japanese incarcerated Hong Kong's British citizens, are painful to read (as they should be), and Will's doomed love affair with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian woman, is satisfyingly tragic. What makes this first novel a keeper is how successfully (yet how subtly) Lee forces us to consider the moral ambiguities that face people trying to survive during wartime, to ask ourselves just how much we would compromise of our beliefs and our sense of right and wrong in order to live.

Azar Nafisi's frank and revealing autobiography, Things I've Been Silent About: Memories (Random House, 2008), offers readers a much more complete picture of the author than was provided by her unexpectedly best–selling first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. In that book, Nafisi's account of secretly teaching classic fiction to a group of women who met weekly in her home, we got a sense of her belief in the power of literature to illuminate and change lives, as well as her bravery in defying the repressive government under which they all lived. However, most readers were left with unanswered questions about Nafisi's own history of growing up in Iran. Her new book answers those questions. (One result of having this book available, is that we can reread her discussions of books by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Eliot, and Vladimir Nabokov, and others, and see how Nafisi's life experiences, in particular her very unhappy childhood, influenced her interpretations of the texts.) It can't have been easy for Nafisi to write this memoir. I often felt while I was reading it that I was in the presence of someone who was slowly tearing a scab off a wound that's not completely healed, leaving it bleeding and painful; I can only imagine how it felt to be the one doing the tearing. Nafisi grew up in Tehran, although her beloved father's family came from Esfehan, the former Iranian capital (a place, based on her descriptions, that I'd now like very much to visit). Her parents had a difficult and unsatisfying marriage. Her mother was cold, calculating, and seemingly not enamored of Azar, her firstborn child. (When she was frustrated or angry with either daughter or husband — which happened frequently — her mother would often bitterly tell Azar that she shared the same rotten genes as her father.) Even as a very young child Azar sided with her charming father, who shared his love of ancient Persian literature, which not only informed his life, but certainly influenced his daughter's appreciation for the importance of books and reading. But her loyalty to her father also required her complicity in his many marital infidelities, a difficult and uncomfortable position for a child to be in. It is perhaps inevitable that the particular hells through which the Iranian people lived in the late 1970s and 1980s play an important part in Nafisi's book, in part because the political realities of the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath mirrored the gaping emotional split in her family (for one example, her mother was a member of the Iranian Parliament while her father spent four years in prison after being mayor of Tehran), but also because the political was personal for Nafisi. She spent her childhood, adolescence, and much of her adult life repressing her feelings of sadness, anger, and shame. In finally gathering her courage to write this book, she did something that is considered taboo in her culture: she broke a code of silence, a belief that one did not air dirty laundry in public. That she did so testifies to her personal courage, and we are all the more fortunate because of it.

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