- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

In "The Piano Tuner" Daniel Mason tells the story of Edgar Drake, a man quietly devoted to both his wife and his profession of fixing pianos. In 1886 the British War Office sends him to Burma to tune an Erard grand piano recently shipped to Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, a soldier-doctor who has had extraordinary success in negotiating treaties with the rival princes of the remote Shan States. Carroll's remarkable achievements have endeared him to a British government eager to stabilize the borders of the Empire, and this explains the willingness to accede to his request for an Erard the finest of grand pianos. But why does Carroll want the piano?
The colonel who briefs Edgar in London has no idea, but as he notes, Carroll is irreplaceable, so when he puts in a follow-up demand for the services of a tuner who specializes in Erards, the Army is willing to hire Edgar and ship him out. After all, as Carroll himself has pointed out, "It is much easier to deliver a man than a piano."
With this odd history fresh in his mind, Edgar leaves London intrigued by the heroic story of the doctor-turned-soldier, a man who once calmed his country's enemies by reciting poetry to them, and whose pacification plans now perhaps include playing the piano for them. As Edgar travels to Burma he hears more tales about Carroll, but he remains an enigma, even when Edgar eventually meets him. Thus Edgar's journey is a quest, and to succeed he must unravel many puzzles.
"The Piano Tuner" contains yet more stories: anecdotes about life in the remotest jungles of Burma, sagas of wars fought between rival rulers and against the British, and most evocatively, the almost Sufic parable of "The Man with One Story" a tale of deafness recounted to all who will listen by a passenger on the ship that carries Edgar to the East. All these are nested into Edgar's personal story, which is that of man whisked out of the humdrum and into a thrilling adventure. The finest of first-time novelist Daniel Mason's achievements is weaving the tales embedded in his novel into a tapestry of bright colors and somber shadows, spritely action and rewarding implications.
Much of Mr. Mason's success depends on his polymathic knowledge. "The Piano Tuner" takes in the history of the British in Burma, the geology and plant life of the remote mountains on the country's eastern border, the diseases of the region and their treatment by 19th-century doctors, and the life and achievement of Sebastien Erard, whose work revolutionized piano construction.
As Edgar notes in one of the many letters he writes, Beethoven had an Erard piano that he used for seven years. Napoleon also played an Erard, though by Napoleon's time Erard himself had long since fled France and set up shop in London. As for Edgar, he is not only intimately versed in the technology of Erard grands and the mathematics of their tuning, but also deeply in love with them.
It is, then, no surprise that in a novel that interleaves stories, Edgar believes that pianos also have a tale and that it is the tuner's task to make its telling possible. By tuning and mending the Erard, Edgar enables it to sing.
He, too, has needed such an opportunity. Though he is 41 and contentedly established in his job and marriage, his life has been narrow. Until his mission to Burma, he has never left England, so the journey by boat and train entrances him. He writes long letters back to his wife, telling her about the colors, the scenery and the people he meets on this almost magical voyage. He ponders on Anthony Carroll and what he will find in Mae Lwin, Carroll's fort close to the border with Siam. Once in Burma, he is eager to see everything, anxious to begin his journey up rivers, over mountains and through jungles to the Erard and the man who has had it sent to such an unsuitably humid place.
When the army forbids him to start because of renewed fighting, Carroll contradicts the order, and Edgar leaves accompanied by Khin Myo, a beautiful young woman, who has been assigned to help him. The journey is arduous; his arrival intellectually rewarding. Burma has thus exposed a new side to his character, a side that takes risks and endures hardships; most importantly, a side open to new ideas and new loves. Quite simply, both Burma and Anthony Carroll fascinate Edgar: fascinate him in the old senses of "to cast a spell" and "to deprive of the power of escape or resistance."
After he completes his work on the Erard, he makes no effort to return home. Like the Man with One Story, who tells of hearing a song so wonderful that it destroyed his hearing, Edgar is caught in an experience that is both illuminating beyond anything he could have imagined, yet destructive of all he had been. Mr. Mason thus suggests that identity is not given and not permanent; rather, it is created and honed by events and it can therefore change, sometimes quickly and dramatically.
A compelling tale, powered by the energy of journeys that are both literal and metaphorical, and rich with echoes of Homer, Conrad, Coleridge, Tennyson and others who have evoked the lures of travel, "The Piano Tuner" is an extraordinary first novel. While Mr. Mason's skill at developing character lags behind his talent for the evocation of landscape and culture, his work is never less than gripping and extraordinarily promising.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.
By Daniel Mason
Knopf, $24, 317 pages

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