A book can enchant you for so many different reasons – sometimes it’s the prose, the simple beauty and music of the words as they flow through you. Sometimes a character will strike you as so vivid and particular you can have conversations with them as you take a walk or indulge in lazyday daydreams. Sometimes the plot is so riveting that you fly through because you just can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher didn’t hold any of that for me. The plot was a bit dull, the prose merely adequate. There were certainly some interesting characters – but alas, none of the main bunch. What the book offered instead was a glimpse into a place and time – Hong Kong before, during and after the Japanese invasion of WWII.

The stories of the love affairs and little explored intrigue are only vaguely interesting – the connections among the characters aren’t particularly striking and the three main characters themselves don’t really seem to deserve much attention, at least not until the end of the story arc for each, when apathy has already set in. The loveliness of the book is in everything that is happening around these love affairs and financial grabbings. The culture and society of Hong Kong in these times, the world that is created – that is the strength of the book and makes it worth a bit of a yawn here or there. And maybe there’s a bit of longing to know more about the more interesting side characters – their lives before and after. But that’s okay. It’s worth a read, just to get a sense of how it might have felt to live through those experiences and to focus on how societies change over time through both dramatic events and plain evolution.