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.