The Piano Tuner

The Piano Tuner is a novel about Myanmar, written by Daniel Mason and published in 2003.

When Edgar Drake is summoned to the British War Office and asked to tune an eccentric major’s 1840 Erard grand piano in the jungles of Burma, he is both confused and intrigued. The year is 1886, and the British Empire is attempting to tighten its control of its colonies in the Far East, to fend off French rivals in the Mekong Delta, and to quell the resistance of a confederacy of local Shan tribes in northern Burma. Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll has established an important foothold in Mae Lwin, employing unconventional methods—reciting poetry and playing music—to negotiate treaties with Burmese opponents of British rule. He has demanded that a grand piano be hauled through the jungle and now requires a tuner to be sent to him as well. Such eccentric behavior causes the major to be regarded by some as a genius and by others as a suspicious renegade, but, as Edgar soon realizes, his actions may conceal even stranger truths. As Edgar embarks on his first trip abroad, the beauty and mystery of Burma, its entrancing landscape, its customs and music, and an exotic woman named Khin Myo cast a spell that he cannot resist. After his task is completed, Edgar decides to stay on with Anthony Carroll—a choice that will change his life as he becomes entangled in a series of events and emotions that spin dangerously out of control.

Written in a prose capable of both historical precision and mystical lushness, The Piano Tuner explores British colonialism at a moment of crisis and the ill fortune of a man who confuses “the cause of music” with the cause of empire.


Call me lazy if you want, but I didn’t want to write the plot summary on my own since I read it two months ago and my memory isn’t that fresh anymore.

I was at first reluctant to read this book because I fear that it might be about political things, but I am glad that I decide to borrow it from the library. The main reason why I like this book is because it was beautifully written and it made me want to visit Shan State again. I also like the character’s attitude towards the Bamar and the Shan people. He was different from other British officers (aside from Carroll) who view them as their subordinates. In fact, he wasn’t happy with the way they treated the local people, such as in the incident where an officer accidentally shot the little boy while they were hunting for tiger.

When I was reading the book, I thought ‘Mae Lwin’ is a real town which might have been an old name like the Salween River (which is called the Thanlwin River in our language) and I tried to find it on the map, but I only found out that it was a fictional town after reading the author’s note at the end of the novel.

The novel’s ending was confusing for me but I don’t want to reveal it for those who haven’t read it yet.

In a way, I get to view the beauty of my country through the eyes of a foreigner. For them, women and children wearing ‘thanakha’ might be a strange sight, but for us, we are used to it as it’s part of our daily lives. I, myself, prefer thanakha over makeup which are more expensive

So this reminds me of a line from a Korean drama.

This is just something I do,but sometimes I imagine that Korea is a foreign country to me, and that I’m a foreigner. Then familiar sights seem new and interesting. (Kang Hyun, Love & Marriage)

Normally, I hate it when people write in library books, but this time I appreciate the person who corrected some of the errors in the novel. I don’t remember them exactly, but one is about a town located on the east of Nyaung Shwe and it was geographically impossible for prisoners from that town to be traveling to Mandalay on the Ayeyarwaddy River. Another one was about the mistake between the 550 stories of Buddha’s previous lives (Jatakas) and the Jataka stories related to ten of the previous lives of Buddha.

Source: Reading Group Guide


3 thoughts on “The Piano Tuner

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Piano Tuner « Speaking Out Loud --

  2. Yeah I read that book too, but was not satisfied with the ending and got bored in the middle at times. But I am always glad when a good unique (Burma) story like this gets written. Tried to read The Caged Lizard but could not get past a couple of pages. It didn’t hold my attention.

  3. The Piano Tuner was one of the most interesting Novels I have ever read. So fascinating and on how they used tuning to negotiate treaties. Just an all around great read.

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