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Book review – The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason – 4 stars

Cover of The Piano Tuner

Cover of The Piano Tuner

I try not to buy books except a couple of times a year at 2nd hand book fairs (in line with our strategic consumption manifesto and because like this blogger I have too many books!). Even though I had never heard of The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, I was attracted to the 2nd hand copy for a few reasons; the attractive cover (as you can see!), the location for the story is Myanmar and we are preparing to travel there, it’s an historical novel and I like to learn history through novels, the title is evocative of classical music, and there are endorsements from 3 good newspapers on the front cover.

On a misty London afternoon in 1886, piano tuner Edgar Drake receives a strange request from the War Office: he must leave his beloved wife Katherine, and his quiet life in London, to travel to the jungles of Burma to tune a rare Erard grand piano. The piano belongs to Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, an enigmatic British officer, whose success at making peace in the war-torn Shan States is legendary, but whose unorthodox methods have begun to attract suspicion.

Sebastien Erard is credited with a multitude of patents, many of which are still used in piano manufacturing today. Erard pianos were owned by renowned figures such as Queen Victorian, Liszt, Beethoven, Chopin, Haydn, Verdi and Mendelssohn. Erard pianos were marketed as the finest pianos in the world. His instruments were some of the most elaborate, expensive pianos ever produced. 

Edgar had never left England and although he was still in love with his wife of 20 years and was loathed to leave her, at the same time he was scintillated by the thought of the adventure ahead of him. Already the book showed similarities to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Edgar had few friends and these were all piano tuners so as you can imagine his scope was rather limited. He was however a lover of history (I am a tuner with a love of history) and he is a gentle and interesting protagonist who I took an instant liking to. So begins the journey of the soft-spoken Edgar across Europe, the Mediterranean, Red Sea, India, Burma, and at last into the remote highlands of the Shan States. En route he reads the military history of Burma and some letters from Doctor Carroll that beguile Edgar and bring him to feel an affinity for him long before he meets him.

Edgar develops the knack for talking to a few interesting strangers during his journey and the stories that they share with him are captivating and add to the rich fabric of the narrative. I loved the tiny interaction with the poet wallah and then completion of the tale at the end of the book. I find myself returning to the narrative of The Man with One Story. Now for a question for you dear reader, what was the significance of the singing woman in thick red robes? When Edgar was in a malarial fever why did he see a woman with a part animal face by his bedside – was it a hallucination caused by the memory of the singing woman? Why did the man become deaf? If she knew her song would have that effect why would she do that to him? Finally, perhaps a reader could help me to understand why the story that the old deaf man shared with Edgar differs so markedly from the story that Carroll heard from the same man? So many questions from this fleeting vignette alone!

The journey to Mae Lwin (where the doctor and Erard are based) takes about half of the book and divides the book into two distinct sections. The first filled with wonderment and anticipation, the second filled with acceptance and comfort with his new surroundings. Like Odysseus, Edgar is in no hurry to return home. In fact he falls in love with a beautiful, enchanting and elusive woman (Khin Myo) who has had affairs with a couple of English men, including being a current mistress of Carroll. I don’t have a sense of Carroll because too few interactions are related to the reader, too few words exchanged and we are not privy to his thoughts. A couple of times he taunts Edgar that some of what he said in his letters is untrue, he also alludes to torturing dacoit to death, he deliberately entraps Edgar into what should probably be called espionage. I wonder if Carroll may have sent for a piano tuner to have a pawn to play with and help him with his subterfuge?

We tantalisingly do not find out the nature of Carroll and Myo’s affair, only that it is ‘different’. At the end of the book when Edgar is either daydreaming or having a real conversation (the reader is unsure of which) the suspicion that Myo is a pawn played by Carroll to deliberately seduce and ensnare Edgar is laid upon the reader. The reader knows too little of Myo to predict either way but I must admit that I had wondered why she would risk her sinecure with Carroll by a dalliance with Edgar.

I wanted more description of the practice of Buddhism in Myanmar and the Buddhist shrines that Edgar encountered during his journey. In particular he pondered why Myo stopped at one shrine and not the dozens she had already passed that day. I wanted him to ask her so that the reader could learn more about it!

It is inevitable that the reader draw similarities to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but while that book has been accused as racist by Chinua Achebe for depicting Africa as “the other world”, Mason instead writes a love-letter to Myanmar, delicately portraying humanity among the people, lauding their dramatic arts and music, and starkly contrasting this with the brutish British rulers.

As I read the book I was conscious that Daniel Mason is a biologist who studied malaria on the Myanmar/Thailand border and wrote the novel while studying medicine in the USA. When he took a long boat ride along the Salween River he heard:

… a strange sound rose up from the thick brush. It was melody … a piano.

Mason included a lot of history (which I loved reading), a tiny amount of science and medicine (more biology and anthropology would have been welcome to me!). In these aspects and in describing the scenery he did really well. On the development of characters other than Edgar I don’t think that he did quite so well, nor on the dialogue. Perhaps people in those times really were that reserved and terse but a bit more ‘meaty’ dialogue would have allowed the reader a better understanding of motivations of the characters. It is sensuous and lyrical, rich with passion and adventure, and it is an unforgettable and haunting novel. I liked the uncertainty, the magic realism, the constant question is this dream or reality. I was surprised by the ending, especially the futility of it but I can see that it was cleverly done and probably the only ending that he could have written to suit the circumstances he had built up until that point.

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This entry was posted on July 11, 2014 by in fiction and tagged , , , , , , , .
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