The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason was published in 2002 and became an internationally best selling novel – the author only 26 years old. Daniel Mason had graduated from Harvard with a degree in biology and went off the Thai-Myanmar borderlands to study malaria. This became the setting for his novel The Piano Tuner and the beginning of a career as a writer, while still pursing a career in medicine. In fact he marries both occupations in the novel, with one of the main characters a doctor in the far reaches of Burma, and the other a more artistic sort, a piano tuner.
The novel begins in London, England in the late1800s. We see the city through the eyes of Edgar Drake, a quiet but intelligent man, happily married, and happily tuning pianos. The author paints a vivid picture of London at that time, as Edgar walks in the fog along the embankment, listening to watermen on the Thames, tramps, and boys he cannot see. He walks through Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, Fitzroy Square, and on to his home in the Franklin Mews where his wife awaits. She greets him with a letter from the war office, a letter about a commission for Edgar to tune the piano of a medical doctor, Surgeon-Major Carroll, in Burma. A commission Edgar will not refuse – because the piano is an Erard – and because he has never done anything in his life as adventurous as this. His wife supports his desire to go – and he is off on a ship, with transfers by train, and more ships until he eventually arrives in Rangoon. The journey is very much one of a transition from his rather predictable and settled life in London, to the exotic world of travellers and adventurers and soldiers and the east.
There is a helpful map in the front of the book for readers to keep track of the geography. There is war, and fear of war – alliances made and broken. I found the history interesting but sometimes confusing – though it did not matter to the story. There is a lot of discussion about the Erard piano and its history, and music and composers that gave depth to the passion, obsession, of the doctor and the piano tuner. It matters not a bit if you know anything about music, or Colonial England and all the various wars and skirmishes of the time, because the beauty and the power of this novel is in the writing and the story.
The attitudes of the doctor, and his beliefs about how to win the war are non-militaristic, “whole villages are dying … with food alone we wouldn’t have to worry about war”. He believes that music can bring people together as they share the beauty of the composition and the sound.
I found this a lovely book to read, really good writing, interesting and informative story, and engaging characters – I was anxious to return to it each day. There was an ending I did not expect, that left me wondering what was and was not true about the mission of the British Government and the Surgeon-Major.