The Piano Tuner is an enticing book, telling the story of Edgar Drake, the piano tuner of the title, who travels from London to Burma in 1886 to tune the grand piano of a British Surgeon Major stationed in the Shan states. This original premise helps to create the feeling of a fable, reinforced through Mason’s elegant technique.
Drake, who has never travelled abroad, undertakes the long journey by sea and land to reach Burma. On the way he encounters unusual travellers and their stories — it is these diversions that give the book a languorous feel. His arrival in Burma does not occur until well into the book, and his eventual meeting with Major Carroll, the owner of the piano, much later still. Mason spends this time building Drake as a character and the world that surrounds him, layer by layer.
Daniel Mason (currently a medical student in California, according to his flyleaf biography) began writing this book while studying malaria in Burma. His poetic descriptions of the Burmese culture and landscape are captivating. Anyone who has travelled in South-East Asia will recognise the world he describes. (His references to life in London and English society sometimes don’t ring true but this is a small flaw.)
Mason also applies his descriptive skills to surgery and the ‘surgery’ of piano tuning. His detailed accounts of the techniques of tuning an Erard grand piano demonstrate serious research. The confidence he shows in taking such a discursive route in a first novel is impressive and effective. Likewise, the information given about surgical techniques and tropical medicine evoke an atmosphere far more clearly than any postcard landscape descriptions.
This book is in essence two stories: the story of Drake and the story of Major Carroll, the army surgeon, and his work at the frontier of Empire. The ambiguities that develop around their respective roles and their relationship form the second half of the book. Mason presents a highly critical view both of the colonial enterprise, and those despatched to far-flung outposts to fulfil its objectives.
The languages and beliefs of the Burmese people are sensitively presented. Major Carroll regards the locals with understanding. He — because of his maverick behaviour – and Drake (because of his humble origins) are outsiders in the officer society, which leaves them more open to the allure of Burmese culture. The temptation to go native is clearly illustrated, along with the liminal nature of identity. The character of Major Carroll is perhaps the opposite of Conrad’s Kurtz, but his motives remain open to interpretation.
Mason handles the ambiguities of plot with some skill, leaving questions unanswered without dissolving the storyline into a blur. This is a dreamlike and lyrical story, and I look forward to Daniel Mason’s next novel.