The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason, is the story of Edgar Drake, a piano tuner sent to Burma to fix the Erard Grand Piano of Surgeon-Major Carroll. Edgar travels from London to India, where he catches a train, then a boat to Burma, finally travelling through Burma to Mandalay and on to Mae Lwin in the Shan States where the Surgeon-Major is stationed. Here he works on the piano while enjoying the peace, beauty and seductive charms of the idyllic Burmese village. As he grows more nervous concerning Surgeon-Major Carroll’s unorthodox methods for establishing peace, he nevertheless falls completely in love with the land and its people. However, the British Army does not share Edgar and Carroll’s desire for harmony and understanding, nor their belief in the power of music.
The front cover of this book promises three things: extraordinary, seductive, haunting. If these words adorn the front of the book, then the reader is going to expect just this. Now, it did not quite meet ‘extraordinary,’ but two out of three isn’t bad, right? Unfortunately, this book made me realise that ‘seductive’ and ‘haunting’ are all very well, but they do not necessarily equate to a great story.
The Journey: Potential for ‘Extraordinary’?
The book begins promisingly. Edgar is an intriguing character, a little dreamy and introverted, a little odd, but deeply passionate about music in a way that convinces the reader to be deeply passionate about music with him. It is very easy to like him, to feel for him, to sympathise with him. Right from the get-go he is uneasy about the typical Victorian imperialistic attitude to the East, and dislikes society’s racist opinions of the ‘Oriental’. He does not like the army on principal, and sympathises instantly with Carroll because of his efforts to promote peace. Edgar is a guy we can get behind. This does leave the question of exactly how Edgar will grow and change on his trip, however. Does he actually have anything to learn? Might it have been more interesting to see the more ‘typical’ middle-class Victorian suddenly thrown into Burmese life?
Edgar’s journey is also promising. He encounters a man on the boat, known as ‘The Man with One Story’ who launches into a haunting tale of mysticism, magic, and the devastating power of music. This is meant to complement Edgar’s own journey, both physical and emotional, but it is slightly unfortunate that this ‘mini-story’ is far more intriguing than anything that happens to Edgar. Still, Edgar’s journey continues. On the train across India he sees a boy at a station who wants to sell him a poem, a tale of the leip-bya of Burma. The train pulls away before Edgar can hear it, but the story of the leip-bya will be visited again later in the book. Edgar faces other events on his way to Mae Lwin including a tiger hunt which goes badly wrong, in which he must face his own attitude and realise that despite his best intentions he is still just another British intruder. Edgar sees beauty, strangeness, mysticism, violence and oppression. He sympathises further with the Burmese people. Over the journey the reader has been taken from the gritty realistic feel of London into a world of magic and ‘otherness.’ Edgar has seen things that bewilder and intrigue him, and is adjusting some of his own attitudes to become a better person.
Problems and Dreams
Unfortunately, the book does not stay on a high note for long. In between the beautifully written moments of awe, or the suggestions of the supernatural, Edgar’s journey is a somewhat boring list of places reached and then instantly left, like the author is ticking off points on a map. This is interspersed with a fairly dry history of the Shan people, followed by an even drier history of Erard Grand Pianos. Despite Edgar re-assessing some of his preconceptions (such as the patronising belief that they can ‘bring music’ to a country that clearly has its own rich musical traditions), he does not really change at all. In fact, he barely reacts to anything around him. He seems to be drifting along as if in a dream, letting things happen to him without engaging. He is possibly the most passive main character I have ever read about.
This is, perhaps, intentional. Edgar’s entire time in Burma feels like a dream to him, and he writes home to his wife that he is losing a sense of what is real and what is only imagined. This connects to the story of the leip-bya, the Burmese word for a person’s spirit or soul, that flies around moth-like at night and returns at daybreak. The leip-bya’s nightly excursions are responsible for dreams. Edgar’s own connection to the leip-bya seems to suggest that he is also flying around moth-like, experiencing a constant dream from which he needs, or perhaps can never again, wake up. This is enhanced by references to the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey, as well as the story of Gautama. Edgar is the man who has fallen in love with a dream-land, who has left his wife and everything else behind to live in an idyllic new land. The reader is never quite sure if this is a wonderful thing, or a deeply sinister thing.
Haunting and Seductive, but at the Expense of Story and Character?
This is the strength of the book, but also its failing. Daniel Mason gives the reader ‘haunting’ and ‘seductive’ in bucketloads. The story is strange, ethereal and surreal. It never quite feels real, and the constant references to dreams, illusions and magic, as well as to men lost to other lands, adds a clever and enjoyable element to this. However, this also means that Edgar never really steps up and becomes an interesting character. He never does anything, simply observing and letting things happen to him. His feelings and emotions are therefore unconvincing, and his extreme love for Burma slightly baffling. He remains so much on one emotion throughout the whole story that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes him so desperate to stay here.
The story itself, as well as the setting, also falls a little flat. In an effort to keep everything feeling so dreamy, the author appears to have neglected to keep his plotting tight and his descriptions evocative. There are plenty of long, rambling sentences about what Edgar sees around him, and yet none of these creates a sense of anything beyond Edgar’s impression of beauty and slight bewilderment. In other words, we are told that what Edgar experiences is beautiful and wonderful, but we do not see this for ourselves. I expected lush descriptions that would make me feel as though I was transported to Burma. I wanted impressions of what this place feels like, smells like, and sounds like; I wanted similes and comparisons that could make me feel as emotionally connected to it as we are informed that Edgar is. I did not get this. In fact, I cannot picture what Mae Lwin, or indeed Burma, looks like at all. The book left me with a hazy dream-image, an impression of heat and trees and a river, but nothing more. This certainly complements the theme and ideas of the story, but it is disappointing nonetheless.
Daniel Mason also has a style of writing that began to grate on my nerves a little. He switches between past and present tense without warning, and seemingly at random. Sometimes this generates a sense of confusion that connects to Edgar’s feelings, but more often it feels as though the author simply forgot what tense he was writing in. At other times, quotation marks indicating speech would disappear without warning, only to reappear again a few paragraphs later. These ‘quirks’ were, presumably, meant to add to the sense of dreaminess and disconnect from reality, but I just found them distracting and annoying. To a certain extent this is what I get for reading a book from the literary fiction genre (yes, literary fiction is a genre. It can pretend all it wants but it’s not fooling anyone), but in general I have nothing against this kind of experimentation, if it feels appropriate. Once again, too much time spent enhancing the haunting, dreamy air, not enough spent on good, simple storytelling.
Ending: The High Point
Despite its problems, The Piano Tuner is perhaps worth reading for the end alone. Suddenly all the meandering elements of the story are drawn together and reality kicks in again with a bang. There are revelations that are surprising and shocking, and a twist-that-could-be-or-not-be-a-twist that is left for the reader to ponder. The story is left on an ambiguous and gloriously bittersweet note. It is a tremendous shame that the majority of the book did not share the same powerful writing and emotional impact as the ending. This is an ending that I will definitely not forget, even as the rest of the book fades into dream.