We were hooked after reading the first chapter of The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason during a one-night getaway to a B&B near Jacksonville, Oregon. We immediately put the book on reserve at the library, and once it came, Mason’s intriguing plot, tantalizing imagery, and mesmerizing style kept us turning the pages late into several nights. Ultimately, though, the book left us unsatisfied (warning: plot revelation ahead).
The plot concerns a British piano tuner, Edgar Drake, who is sent to Burma to tune an Erard grand piano in the possession of an eccentric military doctor stationed at a jungle outpost in territory claimed by the British—a claim understandably contested by the region’s inhabitants. Numerous omens early in the book presage disaster for the mild-mannered Drake, but I naively believed they were simply plot devices to raise suspense and keep the reader engaged. As we neared the end, the thought did pass through my mind, “What if the author does X? No, surely, he wouldn’t.” But he did.
Mason’s apparent message that those who fail to live by the authorities’ rules eventually get squashed seems a bit trite. Perhaps this is how things were—and are—in the realms of government and empire. But certainly that isn’t always the case. We think it would have been more satisfying to see Drake learn that life is about more than living by the rules and then adjust his life accordingly. But then, we’ve already confessed our preference for happy endings (see our “About” page), and these are often not regarded as terribly sophisticated.
In spite of our dissatisfaction with the conclusion, we enjoyed a great deal of discussion engendered by The Piano Tuner. Mason’s writing is rich with symbol, metaphor, and foreshadowing. He also gave us our first introduction to the history of colonialism in Burma, as well as Erard pianos. In fact, we were impressed with his ability to artfully interweave historical and technical information into the narrative in a manner both comprehensible and interesting.
Some discussion topics that arose:
• What is the role of the piano? B suggests it represents the colonial enterprise and its ultimate failure.
• What do the children in the story signify? Are Edgar’s encounters with children in Burma somehow related to his and Katherine’s childlessness, and if so, how?
• Could Edgar have returned home to a meaningful relationship with Katherine? I maintain that he could not have without in some way renouncing his encounter with Khin Myo, and I can’t see the author doing this.
• Is there any substance to the accusations against Dr. Carroll? I don’t think he was in league with the Russians, but I am not sure Edgar’s unshakable faith in his loyalty to the crown is warranted.
• What do the sun and the parasol represent?
We brainstormed several alternate endings that would be in keeping with Edgar’s character and demonstrate his growth as a person without violating the progression of the narrative–a challenging but not impossible task, in our opinion!