Mark Tarallo

Edgar Drake, the hero of Daniel Mason's remarkable debut novel, is commissioned by the British War Office in late 1886 to leave London for a crucial assignment in the distant Burmese province of Mae Lwin. Drake's subsequent journey across Europe, the Red Sea and India is fraught with danger, mystery and beauty. After a surreptitious night crossing of Burma's Salween River, he finally arrives at his destination, only to offer these fateful words to his local greeters on shore: "I am Edgar Drake. I am here to repair a piano."

For Drake is not your usual imperial adventurer, but a piano tuner, and therein lies one of the clever twists of Mason's tale. On its surface, The Piano Tuner is loaded with the traditional elements of an exotic 19th century adventure saga: colorful history and folklore, political intrigue, native romance and ethereal landscapes poetically rendered. Mason, who spent a year in the area studying tropical medicine, has supplemented his real-life experience with considerable research, and the book combines historical faithfulness with plot drama that will have readers racing through the last 30 pages.

But The Piano Tuner is more than an adventure novel, delving as it does into questions of identity, moral responsibility and perhaps most centrally, the effect of desire on perceptions. In the novel, Drake's services have been requested by British Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, a military maverick stationed in Mae Lwin desperate to have his rare Erard grand piano repaired. The request is not as frivolous as it may seem; Carroll uses music and poetry to keep the peace among local warring leaders in Burma's Shan States. As Drake's journey to Burma progresses, Carroll's legend grows, as high military officials, rank-and-file soldiers and locals all offer conflicting stories of the surgeon-major.

The Piano Tuner's offerings of engaging history, drama and large-scale thematic rumination seem even more impressive when one considers that Mason is only 26, and that he wrote the novel while a full-time medical student. With this promising debut, Mason now joins the ranks of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nick McDonnell in the under-30 set of American novelists whose careers deserve close watch.

 

Mark Tarallo, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., is at work on his first novel.

Edgar Drake, the hero of Daniel Mason's remarkable debut novel, is commissioned by the British War Office in late 1886 to leave London for a crucial assignment in the distant Burmese province of Mae Lwin. Drake's subsequent journey across Europe, the Red Sea and India is fraught with danger, mystery and beauty. After a surreptitious […]

At the opening of The Color Midnight Made, Andrew Winer's moving and funny first novel, 10-year-old Conrad Clay is diagnosed as colorblind by his school doctor. The news distresses our young hero, yet in one sense it is his greatest asset. As one of the few white students at Jack London Primary School in a hardscrabble corner of Alameda, California, Conrad has no trouble blending in with his African-American peers, such as his best friend, Loop.

"Loop said I musta been black in a past life," Conrad says, "so it was cool I was hangin' wid the bruthas in this one, since I had prior experience and did not be coming at it on the honky-ass tip."

But Conrad faces difficulties that go far beyond imperfect vision. His father loses his shipbuilding job at the Alameda Naval Base, his parents' marriage is crumbling, his beloved grandmother is dying, and his family is facing eviction from their home. Even Loop, drawn to an older boy, seems to be turning against him.

Thus everyday life becomes a tremendous challenge for Conrad, and his attempts to negotiate his troubled world are depicted in scenes by turns hysterical and heart-rending. Luckily, when things look darkest and loneliest, a few allies emerge. B.L.T., an ostracized overweight classmate, turns out to be an inspiration in skateboarding, Conrad's favorite pastime. And Conrad is bolstered by the gritty wisdom of Loop's brother Midnight, a blind oracular figure who makes up for his inability to see by internally supplying color for everything, from people and trees to his own emotions.

Winer's ear for slang is pitch perfect, and his warm comic way with dialogue is a delight. Here is Bobby, the boyfriend of Loop's mother, chastising a friend for being too romantically aggressive with a woman: "You got to slow your roll, bro . . . you got no shame to your game." Conrad's use of street diction in sharing his thoughts and emotions is striking, but Winer never gets carried away with his own poeticism. The narrative remains tight throughout, with nary a wasted word.

Race relations, the destructive effects of working class job flight on family structure, and the persistence of certain communities even in the worst of circumstances are some of the serious themes this novel takes on. But most importantly, it is impossible not to be drawn into Conrad's plight, and readers will root for him to somehow find a way to emerge intact from his brutal environment. Conrad's circumstances may break a few hearts, but his resilience, charm and brio will undoubtedly win them over in the end.

Mark Tarallo, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., is at work on his first novel.

 

At the opening of The Color Midnight Made, Andrew Winer's moving and funny first novel, 10-year-old Conrad Clay is diagnosed as colorblind by his school doctor. The news distresses our young hero, yet in one sense it is his greatest asset.

Iain Pears is back, and once again, he's full of philosophy, history and well-crafted plot. The author of 1998's best-selling literary thriller An Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears has returned with The Dream of Scipio, an enormously accomplished work that stands as a learned novel of ideas, a meditation on history and a moving love story, all rolled into one volume.

The novel recounts the lives and deaths of three men of Provence, each born into different eras when European civilization faced great peril. Manlius Hippomanes, a 5th century philosopher-aristocrat, is a sad witness to the waning days of the western Roman Empire. Olivier de Noyen, a young passionate poet, watches as the Black Death ravages 14th century Europe. Julien Barneuve, an unassuming scholar, toils away in semi-obscurity while Germany occupies his native France and begins its decimation of the Jews. All three are men of letters forced to parse out their moral obligations as their societies crumble all around them. And as the triple narrative progresses, Pears skillfully reveals the commonalties and linkages between the protagonists.

"Are you civilized if you read the right books," Manlius asks himself, "yet stand by while your neighbors are massacred?" To examine these and other issues, Manlius writes "The Dream of Scipio," a neo-platonic philosophical tract which, through its influence, later shapes the destinies of both Olivier and Julien.

Throughout all this, the reader is placed in the cosmic crow's nest, able to trace the development of the various intellectual currents and observe how ideas are received in different historical circumstances.

The intellectual range of the novel is vast. Yet Scipio is far from a dry piece of academic discourse. At the heart of the novel lies a moving love story between Julien and Julia, a fugitive Jewish painter, and it is this romance, above all else, that drives the narrative and gives the book considerable emotional power. This tandem of thought-provoking ideas and dramatic human situations makes The Dream of Scipio a worthy successor to Fingerpost.

 

Mark Tarallo, a journalist in Washington, D.C., is at work on his first novel.

Iain Pears is back, and once again, he's full of philosophy, history and well-crafted plot. The author of 1998's best-selling literary thriller An Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears has returned with The Dream of Scipio, an enormously accomplished work that stands as a learned novel of ideas, a meditation on history and a moving love […]

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