Daniel Mason’s Guided Tour of British Burma
Great Britain might be relegated to a relatively small piece of land these days, making it easy to forget it wasn’t so long ago they essentially had control over half the world through their empire. The British used to hold countless colonies over multiple continents, and as you might imagine, this led to a considerable amount of strife and opposition over the decades. Life in those colonies was certainly different from anything they had known either before or after, making them a curious microcosm to explore in our history. For his first published novel, titled The Piano Tuner, Daniel Mason decided to take us on something of a guided tour into one of those colonies: British Burma.
The story opens in 1886 as we are presented with Edgar Drake, the titular tuner living a life as normal as can be. One day a strange request comes through to him from the War Office: they want him to travel to Burma and service the piano of an army surgeon for three months in exchange for a full year’s worth of pay. After a bit of consideration, Drake decides to leave the safety of his life and comfort of his wife to sail towards an unknown destiny.
Thus begins his great journey of exploration and discovery bound to challenge and preconceptions he had about the world and the doings of the British Empire. The further he travels into the country, the more the line between the abstract and tangible becomes blurred, especially as he bears witness to the often violent unrest which has befallen the region. Despite dangers mounting against him from the early stages of his trip, Drake decides to press onwards, for better or for worse, determined to see both the wonders and horrors hidden in the little forgotten country.
The Outsider on the Horizon
His position as a stranger to the society also means he pays quite a lot of attention to the smaller details about the lives and customs of the people he comes across. The stories they have to tell all feel very real and organic, and while I personally cannot vouch for the veracity with which they depict life in 1886 British Burma, I felt the author did every possible research short of travelling back in time and seeing it first-hand. There is a perceptible certainty, meticulousness, and confidence in the author’s descriptions, which in my opinion can always be used as a telltale sign of how much a writer cares about the historical accuracy of their work.
There is an almost endearing child-like curiosity at the beginning of the novel, and as it slowly erodes the further we go into the country it gives way to a more jaded and rational perspective. As Drake develops from one chapter to the next and accumulates in experience, we also grow alongside with him and I couldn’t help but start feeling the spiritual weight of the various events he was witnessing, whether they were good, bad, or somewhere in between.
Stories of War, Mystery and Tragedy
A big part of the novel is indeed about giving us a guided tour into the Burma of nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, but there still remains quite a large amount of room for the plot. At the onset, the tone is very much one of mystery as Drake has many questions swirling in his mind with few answers: why the strange work? Why him? What is the importance of the army surgeon? What truths are being kept from him? As we do progressively learn the answers to some of those questions, they seem to become less and less important, taking a backseat to the tragedy and conflict gripping the nation.
As we advance further into the plot the mystery aspect begins to fade away in a certain sense as we begin to focus more on what Drake observes in the moment and the events which mark his journey. There are definitely certain tragic overtones as we move into this area, namely in his observations of the absurd disparity in wealth and power between the colonials and the natives. To me, those were a particularly powerful reminder of the evil men do for power, and what it means for people to live as a conquered nation. Additionally, I would like to add I particularly enjoyed the tiger hunt which, without spoiling too much, teaches Drake a thing or two about his lot in life and the lack of place his countrymen have in Burma.
Further still as the novel advances, the plot moves into a more military-coloured setting as the people’s opposition to the Crown takes the centre stage. Even knowing nothing about history, we can tell the country has turned into a powder keg waiting to explode, and watching our protagonist try and navigate it as an outcast brings a welcome sense of tension to the book which carries through until the very end.
The Final Verdict
The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason is certainly one of those unique books special in its own right. It takes us on a profound guided tour of British Burma while still delivering an excellent plot populated with a diverse and vivid cast of characters which really bring the setting to life. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and is interested in the theme of British colonialism.
Daniel Mason is an American physician and novelist with a BA in biology from Harvard University, in addition to which he graduated from the UCSF School of Medicine. His first novel, The Piano Tuner, was written while he was still a medical student and has been received with widespread acclaim, even becoming the basis for a 2004 opera of the same name. His other novels include A Far Country , Death of the Pugilist, or The Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman McGraw, and The Winter Soldier.