Sunday, December 18, 2005

Book Review: The Piano Tuner

I picked this book up at my local warehouse store over the summer. I was drawn by the blurb on the back of the book: In 1886 a shy, middle-aged piano tuner receives.. an unusual commission from the British War Office: to travel to the remote jungles of northeast Burma and there repair a rae piano...

The opening pages begin: In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman's parasol.

Frankly, this did not sound like the usual books I read. I thought this might be an heir to The Story of Pi; the story of the clash of cultures between the Oriental and the Occidental, the story of what happens when someone leaves the familiar.

Daniel Mason, the author, is a lyrical writer. Since this story is about a piano tuner, sound plays a significant role in the story, which is also difficult to capture on paper. He manages. He also manages to convey the humidity, the languid beauty of Burma, and its complicated history.

But... (you knew that was coming, right?)

The ending is quite ambiguous. There are many references that the piano tuner came to Burma not just to tune a piano, but because of something else. If, by the end, he knows what it is, I surely don't. Even his fate--does he die? does he live--is somewhat ambiguous.

Well-written, but frustrating, at least to me. The kind of book that, I'm afraid, that gets praised in modern English literature or creative writing classes because it is made for deconstruction.

And sure enough, there is a reading group guide available on the publisher's website. (I haven't checked it out yet.) Perhaps The Piano Tuner requires discussion to be fully appreciated.

The usual suspects love it: The New Yorker, The New York Times, The LA Times, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle.

The Piano Tuner certainly isn't the worst book I've ever read. I didn't find it a "page-turner," although I was captivated by Mr. Mason's descriptions of Burma and the main character's reaction to the new cultures he experienced. If you want a taste of what Burma was like during the British Empire period (and before Burma became Myanmar), you will enjoy this book. If you like books with endings and resolutions, you won't like this one.

On the March Hare Scale: 2.5 to 3.0 bookmarks, depending on your tastes.