From London to Burma, to tune a pianoIt is 1886, and Edgar Drake is on a mission. An expert piano tuner living in London, Drake is hired by the British War Office to go to a remote military outpost in Burma to repair a rare Erard grand piano. The instrument belongs to Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, whose unorthodox peacemaking methods ― poetry, medicine and music ― have brought a tentative quiet to the rebellious Shan States but aroused the suspicions of his army superiors.
Drake is initially reluctant to leave his comfortable middle-class life, but the call of something new proves too strong.
Thus Drake sets off on his journey in Daniel Mason’s debut novel, “The Piano Tuner.” Along the way, as he travels by train, boat and horse, Drake is surrounded by a colorful cast of characters, and he begins to open himself up to a world that is beyond his imagining (this is his first trip outside England), one that he has certainly never experienced.
While the description of the journey, which takes up the first half of the book, tends to drag at times, the reader is rewarded in the second half, when Drake reaches his destination. The descriptions of Burma and its people are beautiful: rich in historical detail, they evoke 19th-century Burmese life and culture vividly.
Drake soon is seduced by the languid, sensuous land, although he doesn’t fully comprehend the mystery and danger that surround him and ultimately engulf him. Yet what’s important is his willingness to expand his horizons and perspective.
Mr. Mason, a 1998 Harvard graduate, spent a year studying malaria on the Thai-Burmese border before attending medical school, and the background shows. He has done thorough research not only on medical issues and Burmese history and culture, but on piano tuning and music as well.
While at heart a good adventure story, the book also explores deeper themes of colonialism and the clash of cultures ― Burmese and English, civilian and military, rich and poor.
Yes, the book has some flaws. Some of the passages are overly long and the language occasionally is florid. And would a warlord really be won over to peace by a recitation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which shows the futility of military power? But ultimately, this is a satisfying read for anyone who has thought of escaping his everyday existence. And haven’t we all?
by Linda Mattson