November 2002

Mike Atherton

fiction

The Piano Tuner By Daniel Mason

I have to admit that I had reservations about this book. Pan Macmillan sent out teaser chapters a few months ago and as much as I liked what I read I was a little worried that it was some kind of Conrad-light. Comparisons with Heart of Darkness are unavoidable and although at times this seems to be more of a spin on the more accessible Apocalypse Now than Conrad's dense prose, Mr Mason does come away favourably. If the novel has a stumbling point it's the earlier scenes set in an 1880's London that seems a little too window dressed.

The novel tells the story of one Edgar Drake, a piano tuner who specialises in Erard pianos. He is commisioned by the British Army to travel to the far ends of the Empire, Burma, where he is to repair an 1840 Erard that in some mysterious way seems vital to stability of the region. Drake takes the commission perhaps hoping to discover something missing in himself. His marriage in London is a loving one but becoming more distant each passing day. His wife, first upset at the notion soon becomes attracted to the importance of her husband's 'mission'.

Through briefings and his long journey towards Burma, Drake and the reader discover that this journey has less to do with the piano and more to do with a man: the enigmatic Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll. It is this Kurtz-like figure that becomes the enigma of the novel. He keeps peace in the region not through more recognised military methods but in more unorthodox methods through music and medicine. As Drake gets closer to Carroll he begins to hear tales of this man who is something of a legend in the area. A hero to the regular soldiers for not getting them killed but disliked by the authorities and those in command perhaps not because his ideas are unusual but rather that they work.

Throughout my reading I kept coming back to one phrase that had stayed with me since reading that early chapter:

"And Burma is far."

Mason has a knack for grabbing the reader. The writing is beautiful and becomes more so the further into the interior Drake travels. There are incidents along the way (a disastrous tiger-hunt stands out) but the story really picks up speed when Drake finally comes face to face with Carroll. Mason has obviously travelled and has a knack for conjuring up the locations with a beautiful clarity. It's a pity the earlier London setting is so clumsy as the reader is half expecting Jack the Ripper to make a cameo with a nod of his hat as the working classes parade pass with bottles of gin and a chorus of 'Evenin' Gun'nor'.

Not the first choice for many then but a rewarding read for those who want a break from the current vogue of travel-biography and modern angst.

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
Alfred Knopf
ISBN: 0375414657
336 Pages