Library Director’s Notebook
When I was much younger, say in college or even in high school, I really loved the stories of W. Somerset Maugham. There was something about the exotic locations, the history, and the sense of the sun never setting on the British Empire that appealed to my budding anglophile heart. Years later, and with more understanding of the many negative aspects of the British domination of a huge part of the world, I still can be seduced by historical novels that take place in Queen Victoria’s empire. That’s probably why I was so drawn to The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason.
This is a rather improbable story of Edgar Drake, a middle aged, rather timid piano tuner who is offered an extraordinary job, to travel to Northeast Burma in 1888 to tune a rare and precious Erand piano. Talk about military excess! Yet the British government is willing to send a specialist to Burma to tune a piano because Surgeon-Major Antony Carroll, the eccentric army officer requesting it, is deemed to be absolutely essential to the maintenance of peace in the turbulent area know as Mae lwin, Shan States. At first reluctant to leave his wife and his placid life behind for a dangerous and lengthy trip into a war torn area, Drake finds himself ineluctably drawn to the idea of tuning the rare Erand. His belief in the power of music and his almost sacred love of fine pianos sustain him through many difficult and dangerous days of passage.
Soon he becomes seduced by the exotic country, its unique people, and the sense of being suspended in time and place so remote from anything he has ever known. He is drawn to the lush land and to the beauty of the people, particularly to the young woman named Khin Myo who is his guide. Even after his tuning of the piano is accomplished, he finds he cannot bring himself to leave, but lingers with one excuse or another, feeling that somehow he has some other elusive purpose to fulfill before leaving Burma. Meanwhile his feelings for Khin Myo and her warm responses to him create a sexual tension that seems to be reaching a breaking point, paralleling the tremors of war between Burmese rebels and British troops that continue to escalate and threaten to end the tenuous truce begun by Dr. Carroll.
Has Edgar Drake arrived at Shangri-La, or some much more dangerous and deceptive place? Will his infatuation with the land and its people threaten his long and loving relationship with his wife, erode his beliefs in his own country, and put him directly in the line of fire between his countrymen and the Burmese natives he has come to admire? What does Dr. Carroll have to gain; and is he a patriot with England’s best interests in mind, or a cynical opportunist, relishing his role as the great White leader?
Beautifully written, with a dreamlike pace that seems to lull the reader into a false sense of security, The Piano Tuner astonishes with an explosive and ultimately tragic ending. Edgar Drake comes to understand and savor his own life, even as events move quickly beyond his control. This is a remarkable book that enters the reader’s subconscious and lingers, like the dying notes of a fine piano in an empty concert hall.