Mason, Daniel 1976-
Mason, Daniel 1976-
Home—San Francisco, CA.
Luce Foundation research scholarship, 1999.
The Piano Tuner, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
A Far Country, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.
The Piano Tuner was adapted as an audiobook, Books on Tape, 2007.
A medical student turned novelist, Daniel Mason is the author of The Piano Tuner, a sweeping historical work set in Burma during the late 1880s. With a bachelor's degree in biology from Harvard University, Mason studied medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. After finishing his undergraduate work, he spent a year studying mixed-species malaria infections along the border of Thailand and Myanmar. After his first year of medical school, he returned to Asia "with a Japanese-Thai project studying malaria in northeastern Burma, specifically the Shan States, where much of The Piano Tuner takes place," he explained in an interview on the Bold Type Web site.
Mason squeezed the writing of The Piano Tuner in between two and a half years of medical studies. "I really think I probably never would have written this book if I hadn't been in medical school," he remarked. "In some ways, there was a thrill to writing, in the sense that I wasn't supposed to be doing it." Perhaps more than a relief from his studies, writing the book was "a response to medicine," Mason said. "When I first came to medical school, I suddenly had to confront issues of death and disease and healing on a level which I could have never prepared for. And because students know so little, there is very little we can do, which can be extremely frustrating. So writing was a way to process some of what I was seeing."
Mason's story is set in late 1886, when piano tuner Edward Drake is asked by the British War Office to travel to Burma on a military mission. A mild-mannered fellow, Drake has never traveled beyond the borders of England. He is happily married and content with his vocation, but the queen's request stirs a dormant sense of adventure. His mission: to go deep into the Burmese jungles, five thousand miles away, and repair the humidity-damaged piano of eccentric Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll. The piano, an exceptional French Erard, is Carroll's prized possession; it was brought to him at great risk and expense of life through the mountainous Burmese jungle.
Carroll, Drake learns, uses music to negotiate with Burmese rebels involved in Britain's conflict with the French. Carroll believes in "winning over warring tribes by introducing their souls to music and poetry while healing broken bodies," wrote a critic in Kirkus Reviews. Some of Carroll's more hawkish colleagues think that he has switched allegiances, or at least "gone native." Despite the oddness and inherent pacifism of his approach, however, Carroll's methods work, and the bemused war office grants his requests no matter how peculiar. To keep Carroll happy and to support his continuing military success, Drake is dispatched to tune the surgeon-major's beloved Erard. Drake finds Carroll and tunes the piano, but in the process discovers a life more to his liking outside his comfortable British existence. Drake is unable to leave the commanding but benevolent Carroll, and begins to believe that his skills and influence can have a profound effect on the surgeon-major's campaign.
Drake's river journey through harrowing jungles in search of the larger-than-life Carroll attracted comparisons to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Homer's The Odyssey. "It takes a lot of guts for a rookie novelist to take on the likes of Joseph Conrad, but Daniel Mason does just that with The Piano Tuner, and, even if it is at times overwrought and melodramatic, it is an exotic and atmospheric debut," wrote Tom Walker on the Denver Post Web site. Book critic Penelope Mesic remarked that although the novel "sparkles with exoticism," it remains "impossible not to think of this book as a sort of Heart of Darkness lite." "A gifted storyteller and writer," observed Joanne Wilkinson in a more positive Booklist assessment, "Mason uses translucent prose rich with metaphor and allusion to call up Conrad's signature theme of the voyage into the wilderness."
Mason recognized the similarities and commented in the Bold Type Web site interview: "I was aware of Conrad—I wrote a book about a boat and a river, and he had written a far greater one, so he loomed over me always." But while acknowledging the presence of Conrad, Mason disavowed direct influence. "The theme of traveling into the jungle is such an essential, fundamental one, I think I could have written The Piano Tuner without having read Heart of Darkness," he asserted. "Superficially our setting is similar, but I think that with regards to theme, as well as inspiration, my book owed much more to The Odyssey."
Intertwined with the novel's narrative are historical notes on Burma. "It's as if the exotica that is Burma in the mid-19th century is a character in its own right," Walker wrote. Mason "plays upon the seeping tropical heat and humidity. The locals, at least the few we meet, are sensitive and smart—and very different from westerners." In a book "confidently weaving historical fact together with imaginative construction, Mason creates a riveting narrative, spangled with fascinating asides about everything from the ancient history of Burma to the history of Erard pianos to the mathematical mysteries of Bach," wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. "In doing so, he has written a seductive and lyrical novel that probes the brutalities and compromises of colonization, even as it celebrates the elusive powers of music and the imagination."
Mason's much-anticipated follow-up novel, A Far Country, takes place in a rural, Catholic area of an unnamed country. The serious water shortages there have led fourteen-year-old Isabel to travel from the country to town to live with family members. She is looking forward to a reunion with her brother, Isaias, who moved to town earlier, but upon her arrival she discovers that her brother has disappeared. Although Isabel is supposed to help her family and care for her cousin's child in exchange for room and board, her mind keeps wandering to Isaias, and she begins stealing time from her duties to look for him. Mason hints that Isabel may have psychic powers at her disposal, along with everything else she puts toward trying to locate her brother. Overall, the book received praise primarily for Mason's lyrical writing style and the deep sympathy he shows for his helpless narrator. Some critics, though, were less impressed with A Far Country than they were with The Piano Tuner. A reviewer from the New Yorker, for one, remarked that in Mason's sophomore effort "his characters, stripped of specificity, never quite achieve interior life." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote: "Readers may be wooed by the prose, but the story is a snoozer." New York Times Book Review contributor Matt Steinglass compared Mason's novel to the late-1950s film Black Orpheus, but remarked on the book's lack of current references. Steinglass stated that "one misses the bizarre multicultural fusions that cheap Internet cafes and pirated DVDs are creating in even the poorest societies." Wilkinson, in another Booklist review, nevertheless felt that "Mason invests his story with all the power of a fable, one that gives Isabel's personal bravery its due."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, September-October, 2002, Penelope Mesic, review of The Piano Tuner, pp. 80-81.
Booklist, July, 2002, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Piano Tuner, p. 1797; November 15, 2006, Joanne Wilkinson, review of A Far Country, p. 6.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of The Piano Tuner, p. 908.
Library Journal, August, 2002, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Piano Tuner p. 144.
Los Angeles Times, Bernadette Murphy, "Journey to Self-Discovery in a Land of Danger and Dreams," review of The Piano Tuner, p. E3.
New Yorker, April 16, 2007, review of A Far Country, p. 153.
New York Times, September 17, 2002, Michiko Kakutani, "A Debut Novel Born of Homer, Conrad and Malaria," p. E7.
New York Times Book Review, April 29, 2007, Matt Steinglass, "Missing Person," p. 7.
Publishers Weekly, December 18, 2006, review of A Far Country, p. 40.
Bold Type,http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/ (January 28, 3003), Jenny Lee, interview with Daniel Mason.
Book Page,http://www.bookpage.com/ (December 5, 2002), Mark Tarallo, "A Pitch-Perfect First Novel."
Denver Post Online,http://www.denverpost.com/ (December 5, 2002), Tom Walker, "Debut Novel Works Despite Darkness at Heart."
Fresh Angles,http://www.freshangles.com/ (December 5, 2002), Kaavya Viswanathan, review of The Piano Tuner.
USA Today Online,http://www.usatoday.com/ (December 5, 2002), Anne Stephenson, "The Piano Tuner Keeps the Tension Taut."