Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

The Piano Tuner

Daniel Mason

Picador 2002

Medical student Daniel Mason spent a year studying malaria on the Thailand-Myanmar border, and The Piano Tuner is the by-product of his visit there. He evidently found time to study the history and the culture of the country that used to be called Burma, as this novel is full of information about it. During the 19th century, the British Empire was embroiled in skirmishes with bandits and the struggles of various indigenous groups for independence. Mason provides a great deal of historical background in this area; combined with his dry prose style, this frequently makes his novel feel like non-fiction. Edgar Drake is a middle-aged piano tuner summoned to the wilds of Burma by rogue army doctor Anthony Carroll. As Drake approaches his remote outpost, legends about Carroll precede him. The book owes a huge narrative debt to Conrads Heart of Darkness (the text that inspired Apocalypse Now). Drake travels up the Irrawaddy river, pondering the nature of this mysterious, Kurtz-like figure whose methods have become unsound. Arriving with his piano-tuning tools (no machete, no Doors music, alas), Drake uses his expertise to repair the destructive effects tropical weather has had on the beautiful grand piano. I found it hard to care about any of the characters. The female love interest is a predictably inscrutable oriental with a flower in her hair, and Carroll himself is anti-climactic, striding about like some Boys Own Adventure hero, while proving his sensitive side by admiring flowers. It only made me wish for Marlon Brando mumbling The Wasteland, before being terminated with extreme prejudice by Martin Sheen. Mason is a competent writer, and does a good job of evoking the cities and countryside of old Burma. However, the story itself just lacks the mystery and depth needed to make it a first-class novel. The only times his prose comes alive are the instances when he allows two of the characters to tell stories. One is an Arab Drake meets on the boat, who recounts an intriguing experience in the desert. The other is Carrolls description of how he transported a grand piano from Mandalay to his jungle fort in one piece.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.


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