23 January 2012

Review: The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

Originally published in July 2005, on my original 52 Books blog. This is the final review repost.

In 1886, Edgar Drake, a specialist in tuning Erard pianos, is sent by the British War Office to the wilds of Burma to tune an Erard for Surgeon-Major Carroll, a man who has managed to become perhaps the most important British officer in the whole of Burma by making himself indispensable for the peace negotiations between the British and the Burmese. The piano plays some mysterious part in all this, but has unfortunately reacted badly to the extremes of the climate and is out of tune. Drake, shy, thoughtful and eccentric, finds in himself an unexpected adventurousness as he sets off from England to tune the piano. Once he gets to Carroll’s stronghold in Mae Lwin, he is enchanted by the place, charmed by Carroll, and seduced (not in the physical sense) by a mysterious local woman. All of these unite in holding him there, and he loses all sense of time and sinks into a kind of dream. When reality finally invades, it becomes doubtful if he will ever return to England and his beloved wife.

This is a beautiful and melancholy story. Mason has a talent for describing landscapes and people in flowing and evocative prose, and it has been a long time since I read anything as cinematic as this book. In some strange way I can not quite define, I felt this was a very English book, although the author is an American. He perfectly describes the attitudes and arrogance of the British towards the Burmese people, for example in the chapters about Drake’s journey and the British officers he meets - especially a very tragic tiger hunt he unwillingly joins. The first half of the story is about Drake’s journey from England to Mae Lwin, and the second is about his stay there and the tuning of the piano. The story is very slow and flowing, right down to the last chapters, when it suddenly picks up, with unnecessary suddenness, and becomes a thriller. There is hardly any build-up to the action, and the ending, although apt, is too abrupt.
I did feel that I couldn’t quite sympathise with Drake, or indeed any other character. They are all described from the outside, as if the author was describing something he was seeing on a movie screen in front of him, rather than actually being there. There is always a distance between the reader and the characters, a distance you want to bridge, but can’t, because there is something lacking in the telling of their story. This distant, at times almost clinical viewing of the characters, is a big flaw, and prevents the book from making my favourites list.

All in all, I would say this is a very good first novel, but has flaws that Mason will hopefully not repeat in his next novel.

Rating: A beautiful and tragic story of one man’s adventure of a lifetime. 3+ stars.

Excerpt from The Piano Tuner.

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