In the fleeting seconds of final memory the images that will become Burma are the sun and a woman’s parasol. He has wondered which visions would remain – the Salween’s coursing coffee flow after a storm, the pre-dawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground tumeric, the weep of jungle vines. For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants.
A beautifully crafted story, an occupied country, a short study on grand pianos, a slow burning love story, The Piano Tuner is all of these at once, Daniel Mason works magic in painting not just the characters, but a Burma itself that you slowly sink into.
Edgar Drake is requested by the war office to travel to Burma to repair a rare grand piano owned by an army surgeon posted out in the jungle. Edgar accepts, saying goodbye to his beloved wife Katherine and travels from dreary london to the exotic east. His brief focuses more on the owner of the piano, Surgeon-Major Carroll that the piano itself, which Edgar comically points out. Carroll is slowly revealed from dossiers and stories as Edgar draws closer to Burma and almost at the final hurdle, he has to jump into the unknown at the behest of the surgeon, to ensure the piano is repaired. All the while he is writing back to Katherine of what he is encountering and his feelings towards his mission.
In Burma he meets Khin Myo, who guides him to the surgeon and a slow, languid love story begins. Drake is finally introduced to the piano, repairs it and plays on it as Carroll strives to bring peace to the region using all his diplomatic skills and understanding of local customs. Edgar hangs around after the piano is repaired, unsure why, but not quite willing to leave. He almost without realising develops feelings for Khin Myo, and his letters to Katherine become more infrequent, although she still is his home, steady as it is against the enigmatic and exotic Burmese woman.
In the introduction Sadie Jones points out the comparisons that have been made between the Piano Tuner and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, having not read Heart of Darkness I can’t comment on that, but from what I know of the story, on the surface there is a similarity, but for me what drew me in most was the build up feelings between Edgar and Khin Myo. Edgar is aware of his love of Katherine, the life they have in London he still finds himself drawn to Khin Myo and her shy affection, despite his best intentions not to.
Then, in the final few chapters, Mason superbly, but incredibly jarringly turns what has been a love letter to Burma into a spy thriller, as Edgar is ferried away from danger and learns of an alternative story to the one told to him by Carroll. He refuses to believe the military’s version of events however and tries to head back to his new friends. So cleverly was the turn around I found myself doubting Carroll long after I had finished reading, as well as the relationship between Edgar and Khin Myo, which had caught me throughout the book.
Finishing The Piano Tuner is much like coming out of a tropical jungle I imagine, you have been immersed and drawn in and mesmerised by everything around you, but have come out of the humidity to the cold, clean fresh air, and you feel that something seems missing.
With Burma opening up now Mason’s novel is not just an incredible story but a luxurious advert for a country as enigmatic as Surgeon-Major Carroll.
As they played, a strand of hair broke loose from where it had been tucked beneath the flower. It tickled his lip. He didn’t pull back, but closed his eyes, and moved his face closer so that it traced itself over his cheek as he played, over his lips again, now over the lashes of his eyes.
The music rose faster, then dipped sweetly, softer, and then it ended.
Their hands rested together on the piano. She turned her head slightly, her eyes closed.She said his name, her voice composed only of breath.