The Piano Tuner

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In his remarkably accomplished first novel, Daniel Mason replicates the pattern of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), in which a European journeys to a remote jungle setting to find another European who has succumbed to the spell of the exotic. The Piano Tuner begins in 1886 with a summons from the British War Office. Edgar Drake, a professional piano tuner, is asked to leave his beloved wife Katherine and the comforts of London to travel to distant Burma. An extraordinary military physician, Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, has used unconventional methods to pacify the Shan States that have been resisting British rule. A dilettante scholar and aesthete, Carroll has had an Erard grand piano shipped to the fortress he commands at Mae Lwin, a two- day trek from Mandalay. He now demands a tuner.

Mason’s novel follows Drake’s progress from London to Alexandria to Rangoon to Mandalay, and eventually to Mae Lwin. Attacked by bandits and by fever, he finally encounters the legendary Dr. Carroll and falls in love with his lovely Burmese mistress, Khin Myo. Implicated in Carroll’s ambiguous military operations, Drake abandons his will to return home.

During Drake’s long voyage to Burma, a wretched stranger recounts how, shipwrecked on a deserted shore, a woman’s mysterious song made him deaf. A parable about the dangers of enchantment, the stranger’s story parallels Drake’s own experience, even as it flaunts the mesmerizing power of Mason’s novel. The Piano Tuner is a book that is rich in details about Burma, piano tuning, and British colonialism, as well as other devices to entice a reader.