Jan/Feb 2003 Book Reviews

The Piano Tuner

Daniel Mason
Picador, Pan Macmillan (November 2002) 357 pages
ISBN: 0 330 49267 5

reviewed by Ann Skea

Tucked away in the Author's Notes at the end of the book is a memory Daniel Mason has of travelling, as a student of malaria, on a long-tailed boat up the Salween River in Burma. From a "muddy trading post on the banks of a small river a strange sound rose up from the thick bush." What he heard was a piano. "Perhaps," he writes, "it was only a recording, creaking out on one of the dusty phonographs that can still be found in some of the more remote markets. Perhaps. It was, however, terribly out of tune."

Perhaps, too, this was the source of inspiration for his story. The Piano Tuner is imaginative, curious, almost believable, and certainly intriguing. "Edgar Drake, piano-tuner, Erards-a-speciality," is an unlikely hero. Middle-aged, successful, happily married and comfortably settled in the Victorian society of nineteenth-century London, he is suddenly the recipient of a letter from the British War Office requesting his services for an Erard grand piano. Not an unusual request, except that the piano is in the possession of Surgeon Major Carroll in a remote and dangerous part of Burma.

The circumstances surrounding this request are as bizarre as the request itself. Surgeon Major Carroll is clearly a valued but unusual officer. So valued, that his threat to resign if an Erard piano tuner is not immediately sent to tune his piano in the remote Shan Hills is being treated very seriously. But information about him and, more importantly for Edgar, about the true state of the piano which Carroll has transported into the Burmese jungle with him, is not forthcoming. All of which arouses Edgar's (and the reader's) curiosity.

Edgar decides to accept the job, and his journey to Burma is part travelogue, part history and geography lessons, part story-telling and adventure, and it is wholly absorbing. Mason makes the Burma through which Edgar travels historically accurate, and some of the people Edgar meets did, in fact, live there at that time, but this does not constrain the author's imagination. And Edgar's own conservative, unassuming, earnest character makes him so out-of-place in the exotic and strange surroundings through which he travels that this is part of the fascination of his story.

Edgar Drake is an old-fashioned character, and in some ways this is an old-fashioned novel and Mason is a good, old-fashioned story-teller. But he also takes some daring risks and carries them off with considerable skill. He begins the book with Edgar's death, and reminds us of it later in the book, but he still holds our interest. He breaks up the narrative with several short stories; he avoids torrid love scenes by keeping his lovers within the bounds of Victorian and cultural moralities; he adds a few lessons on topics which range from the malarial parasite to Burmese folk-lore and superstition; he throws in the occasional letter as an explanatory device; and he adds a touch of the 'True British Hero' and Boy's Own derring-do. But somehow, with his passion for Burma and his fluent, enjoyable prose, he manages to get away with most of this.

The Piano Tuner is Daniel Mason's first novel, and, as the cover blurb says, it is "an elegant and unusually engrossing story." Mason's inventiveness, and the playfulness and skill with which he mixes knowledge and imagination into an unusual, very readable and enjoyable story, make his name worth remembering for the future. Let's hope that he never spends so much time on his studies in biology and medicine that he gives up story-telling.


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