The piano tuner is Edgar Drake of London, expert tuner of Erard grand pianos, and the year is 1887. Drake is summoned to an unpacified area of Burma at the height of British imperialism in the Far East. This is new territory for me — as it certainly was for Edgar Drake. I have read a number of books set in India during the Raj, but the British were long in that setting as traders before they became governors. In Burma they were still establishing the basics of control. In the Shan States, in the eastern border area near Thailand and China, an eccentric army doctor demanded first a piano, then a tuner for the piano.
The novel makes a slow start, with Drake in London considering the assignment and negotiating with his wife. The wife, worthy as she is, never achieves the reality of the women Drake later meets in Burma. Drake is an upright individual who is committed to music, “the song in the piano.” In Burma, he hears new songs although he may not understand them. Hi similarly struggles to understand Dr. Carroll, who is so devoted to his piano and his own vision of the Shan people.
Near the end of the story Carroll dedicates a passage about the Lotus-Eaters in the Odyssey to Drake, “who has tasted.” The taste does change Drake, but in believable ways, given his character. The rather abrupt ending of the book is less believable, but that does not take away from Mason’s achievement in bringing us these peoples and their music.