Unless You Lost the Way {Book Club}

Oh my word.

Now we know what happens to The Piano Tuner (by Daniel Mason).

At the end of the book, my mind bounced from thoughts of Katherine, to Khin Myo, to Edgar himself.

I had to remind myself of how much—or really how little—time passed from when he was commissioned until his execution. I think it was about seven months: one to prepare in England, one to travel to Burma, several weeks in Burma to get to and wait in Mandalay, and three or four months in Mae Lwin. That’s it.

I loved last week when Kiera said in the comments that on the surface, really so little had happened. Edgar went to Burma. He tuned a piano. And, at that point, there was still 22% of the book left. How could it be that eight months before, Edgar surely knew of Burma, but had no special interest in it, and now his —and Katherine’s—lives would be changed forever?

I will return to Edgar and questions I have, but before that, let’s talk about the two women who, though not mentioned much, are strong presences in the book.

Katherine.

When Edgar realized they had never sent any of his letters, my heart sank. What was the last news she received from him? Would it have been when he wrote to her from Rangoon before heading to Mandalay? And then nothing for months. And then to be told he had deserted the army (when the army made it clear it was they who commissioned Edgar, not Dr. Carroll). And then he was executed as he escaped after being arrested.

What?

What?

What?!

She must have been reeling, to have a black hole of information and no one to ask. I cannot imagine the pain.

In a twist of odd timing, last Friday night I had dinner with a teammate from the summer of 2006. We spent several weeks together in Tibet and she now lives in Denver. After dinner, as her three young children wrestled around us, somehow after all these years we touched on our teammate Carol.

Carol was around my age at the time, mid-30s, single, a teacher, and proud auntie. Unlike me, she had a serious boyfriend who just could not pull the trigger and propose, though they had dated for years. We clicked. I knew we would be friends post trip. That summer she had horrible back pain and I spent a lot of time helping her try and find relief.

When the trip was over, she flew back to America and I flew to Beijing to help my organization with the orientation for those new to the field. I received an email from Carol that the doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on but thought it was a parasite. That was the last communication we had.

The next email was from our organization saying she had liver cancer and had one week to be at home before she would be taken to a hospice facility.

What?

What?

What?!

The next email was that she had died. Because of privacy policies (these were new at the time and people were still figuring boundaries) we could send a condolence card to the headquarters, but we could have no contact with her mother.

I was so thrown by her death and the suddenness of it. We were just in Tibet. She was alive and we were serving together and having adventures. And now I couldn’t even tell her mom how sorry and shocked I was? How knowing her daughter, albeit briefly, meant something to me.

I knew her hometown in Nebraska so I searched online and found three people who could be her mom and I called them. I found Carol’s mom. Long story short, her mother was grateful to hear about Carol’s summer because there hadn’t been time to talk, to share stories, to go over pictures. Her mom asked if she could mail me all of Carol’s pictures and if I would label who was in them, where we were, and what we were doing.

Of course I said yes. It helped me. It helped Carol’s mom. But who can help Katherine make sense of this tragic ending?

Who?

Katherine, you may be fictional, but you are real to me and I’m sorry.

Khin Myo.

The foreign men in Khin Myo’s life and the way they used their power disturbs me. How many of us have seen vulnerable young people have interactions with “powerful” foreigners that are questionable at best, and abusive at worst. Help me if I’m recalling incorrectly, but she had two foreign teachers, one seems to be fatherly and one seems to be a creepy sexual predator. She was in a relationship with Dr. Carroll and because we only see and understand what Edgar does, it is not clear her true feelings. Even if she does love him and is willingly in a relationship with him, let’s not fool ourselves. She has limited options and could “only” work at the guesthouse because Captain Nash helped her find employment in the guesthouse. And then Edgar entered the story. He was both loyal and disloyal to the boundaries he should have had with both Katherine and Khin Myo. Talk about a blurring of lines.

Oh Khin Myo, you too are fictional, but your experience with foreign men in power is all too real and I’m sorry.

Edgar.

Near the end, it clicked for me how much of what I knew was filtered through Edgar’s eyes. And as people who lived or have lived overseas, we know how much we sometimes think we understand; but the truth is we understand so much less than we think we do. Most of us will not have to pay for our ignorance (or limited understanding) with death.

Questions I have and we can discuss in the comments:

—What was keeping Edgar in Mae Lwin? Do you think he thought he would really leave?

—Why was being in Mae Lwin so life-altering for Edgar?

—Do you think the peace that Dr. Carroll brokered really happened? Or did Edgar misunderstand what was going on?

—Was Dr. Carroll a Russian spy? Did he send Khin Myo to flirt with Edgar?

—Who do you find believable at the end? Where are you questioning what you thought you understood?

Let’s keep talking in the comments. Next week we start our reading of Humble Roots and Scouting the Divine. See the reading schedule below. Thank you for engaging so much with this book. I have loved our discussions!

Amy

The reading plan for

Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul and Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey

March 6—The intros to the two books (Wonderment in SD, Sowing Seeds in HR)
March 13—Part 1 (The Good Shepherd) in SD
March 20— Chapters 1 and 2 in HR
March 27—Chapters 3 and 4 in HR
April 3—Part 3 (Land of Milk and Honey) in SD
April 10—Chapters 5 and 6 in HR
April 17—Part 4 (The Vine) in SD (Retreat this weekend!)
April 24—Last week was retreat so to have time to focus on the retreat, no extra reading his week. We will have a Get to Know and get back to reading this week. Also, I will announce the summer reading!
May 1—Chapter 7 in HR
May 8—Chapters 8 and 9 in HR
May 15—Part 2 (The Harvest) in SD
May 22—Chapters 10 and 11 in HR
May 29—We made it! Two books read in tandem we will review and have a Get to Know 

Photo by leonie wise on Unsplash

17 Comments

  1. Rachel Kahindi February 27, 2018

    A Russian agent? A French spy? These accusations seem so random. I can easily believe that Dr Carroll was a Shan nationalist, though, that he ultimately was trying to get the British out of the region, which required peace between the Burmese groups so they could unite against British troops. I can believe he used Khin Myo to woo Edgar to stay longer because he needed another Englishman present to do what he wanted to do. But was that to increase his standing in the supposed treaty signing (as he told Edgar he needed a representative of the superintendent) or was it so that Edgar would go back and report that he witnessed a treaty signing – because Carroll knew he was under suspicion? But then he knew all along that Edgar would be under suspicion, too, for going AWOL. But that wasn’t part of the original plan, so I’m questioning all of this.

    When Nash-Burnham suggested that Carroll used Khin Myo, I thought back to the first day in Mandalay when she said (paraphrasing from memory), “you learn a lot when people assume you are deaf to their language.” She probably brought him a lot of information.

    Why Edgar stayed so long is complicated. First, every move he made to get to Mae Lwin, he was following someone else’s instructions. He had to decide for himself when it was time to leave. He even said, “I expected to be asked to go.” Second, after tuning the piano, the job wasn’t done. He wanted to follow up after changes in the weather. However, I think more than that he stayed for two other reasons. He wanted to see his hypothesis proven: that music could broker peace. And, he wasn’t ready for his adventure to be over.

    1. Amy Young March 1, 2018

      I found myself nodding as I read your comment Rachel.I don’t know if it is common in your part of the world, but on several occasions (so not THAT often), rumor among the Chinese was that THAT foreigner or THAT one was working for the CIA. It always seemed crazy to me. As far as I know, I have never actually met a spy :). But then, if they are a good spy, that’s what I should think. HA!

      And Khin Myo did tell us that she knows a lot more than she lets on!

      Finally, I like the way you expressed why Edgar might have stayed.

  2. Michele February 27, 2018

    i was among those who couldn’t stop reading and finished this book over a week ago, but it has really been lingering- maybe because of all the questions we’re left with. I realized as I read the way you addressed the two women that this has been kind of bothering me too. I tell myself it’s ‘just a story’, but whether or not he did it on purpose, Mr. Mason has, I think, by leaving us with so little knowledge of how things ended up for Katherine and Khin Myo, conveyed that overall attitude that prevailed in most cultures then and still does in many places- that the woman’s story doesn’t really count.

    I think maybe Edgar wanted to stay in Mae Lwin because he had found a measure of purpose and identity there. The sense he had of being ‘just a piano tuner’ in London kept coming up. There was the adventure too, and the real pleasure he found in this new culture and the beauty of the place, but it seems he had found a new side of himself there which he was afraid of losing when he returned to life in London.

    I agree with Rachel that it seemed very likely to me that Carrol was a Shan nationalist. That quote he gave to Edgar at the end kind of confirmed that. It seemed like he knew Edgar was likely to find out one way or another what had happened- that he would probably be arrested and questioned. Was that quote a kind of last attempt to remind Edgar of the one thing that they both did have- a sincere appreciation for these people and their culture?

    I mentioned last week that this book read like an old British classic to me, and I almost feel like it could be ‘studied’ like the books we read in high school or college literature classes. I feel like if I read it again there would be a lot of things I’d pick up on that I missed the first time. I’m looking forward to getting everyone’s take on it because I also feel like I could be easily persuaded to change my mind about the answers to the questions I did attempt here!

    1. Amy Young March 1, 2018

      Michele, I agree . . . I think if I reread this book, I would notice so much more than I did when I read it this time. And like you, I think my ideas/opinions in several areas could easily be swayed by other’s perspectives :)!

  3. Elizabeth February 27, 2018

    Oooh, the next two books look super good! I often run out of time to read along but am going to have to try to make the time!

  4. Suzanne February 27, 2018

    The ending reminded me of a Chinese film in a good way. I asked my Chinese teacher once why Chinese movies always leave you hanging and often have sad endings. She asked me why western movies always wrap everything up neatly and have happy endings. (Obviously we were both generalizing there.) She likes to be left thinking about the movie for ages, and wondering.

    I am also one of those impatient readers and finished the book a week or so ago. And ever since, I have been thinking about the story and wondering….. Who WAS Carroll? What were his allegiances? What was the truth???????

    Re the ‘What? What? WHAT?!’ tale of the friend with whom you travelled for the summer, oh, how totally tragic……..

    This book was my first introduction to the Velvet Ashes book club and it’s been great. I’ve since ordered a paper copy of the book for my mother, recommended it to a couple of other friends and recommended the book club to others too. Thanks.

    1. Bayta Schwarz February 27, 2018

      What a great insight! We really are so used to stories being neatly wrapped up at the end, and this one definitely wasn’t!

    2. Amy Young March 1, 2018

      Suzanne, so glad you enjoyed this book so much that you bought it for others and have shared it :), that is sign of a good book.

      Oh man, you hit on something with the comparison to Chinese movies . . . I rarely watch them “just for fun” for the very reason you shared! I am left feeling confused, lost, and a bit disjointed with the world. But neat and tidy isn’t reality :).

  5. Bayta Schwarz February 27, 2018

    Wow – that last stretch left me reeling! The change of pace was unbelievable! What happened to the beautifully slow book so many of us commented on?! Suddenly everything was happening all at once! I think at some point I gave up trying to decide who was trustworthy, and what the real story might have been…
    But yes, Katherine… I wonder what story she was actually told? How she made sense of it all and moved forward with her life?
    I was also wondering about Edgar being so reluctant to leave. Maybe it was because he knew that once he returned to London, he’d never see Burma again. Or likely go on any other wild adventure. That he’d have to go back to his old normal when he had seen so much and changed because of it. That there’d be very few (if any) people around who understood. Made me realise again what a gift it is to have people around who do “get it”. And to know that I will have opportunity to travel again, and even to encounter so many cultures right where I am. Can’t even begin to imagine life without that!
    I was also intrigued by the “Afterword”, and fascinated how even in the author’s mind, the story kept changing and evolving – even after publication. “Characters took on afterlives, peopling sketches and short stories”

    1. Kiera February 27, 2018

      You’re right, Bayta, the change in pace was striking.

    2. Amy Young March 1, 2018

      Yes! That pace suddenly was like someone hit the accelerator!

      And I can understand Edgar’s reluctance to leave. After my first summer in China I cried so hard my teammates all thought I had fallen in love with one of my students . . . but couldn’t figure out who :)! (Because there wasn’t anyone!) I was reluctant to leave too. AND then after many, many years in China, it seemed my time was coming to an end. But I didn’t really want it to. But I also did not want to continue in the miserable state I was in :). I dragged my feet hoping something would change. It can be so hard to leave a place we know that we can never really return to :).

  6. Kiera February 27, 2018

    Edgar confused me at the end of the book. On one hand, I can understand becoming more wrapped up in a new place than you could have ever imagined. But his romanticism with Burma that in some ways made him forget about Katherine, I didn’t like. And the part with Khin Myo? We feel throughout the book, Edgar’s awakening to things, people and cultures that he has never seen and his wonder in it all, but why should that make him forget everything he was before? In particular, going after another woman when Katherine was so faithful to him, I disliked.

    Also, when he was on the run, why did he turn back to free the piano and send it careening down-river? At first I thought he wanted to stay with the piano which made some sense, but why cut it free? Why did Carroll try to save the piano? Was he just trying to get Edgar away from the village? He told him to float down to the British settlement, did he know Edgar would be arrested?

    And, I can’t recall whether this was in this last section or the one before it, but what is the significance of the fact that the “man with one story” told Edgar a different story than everyone else? Definitely a book that left me wondering.

    1. Amy Young March 1, 2018

      I disliked how Edgar seemed to forget Katherine too. I hadn’t noticed the man with one story told Edgar a different one! Good catch.

      Good question on the piano! I assumed Carroll was trying to save it after all it took to bring it in . . . but now I wonder if he was setting Edgar up to be arrested. WHAHHH, even more questions :)!

  7. Karen February 27, 2018

    I have to say identified with the fact that Edgar participated in the Shan meetings, with absolutely no idea what was really going on around him. How many times have I ben part of things, where I had no idea what was going on under the surface? Far more than I can count! Even when I understand the language, the cultural differences can leave us completely clueless as to what everyone else seems to understand is going on in a situation. So often I can only pray and ask God to clean up after any mistakes I may be inadvertently making.

  8. Spring March 1, 2018

    I admit the ending wasn’t my favorite. Of course I am the type of person who likes to have a ending where all loose ends are tied up. I felt left hanging, especially with Katherine. She and Edgar seemed to really love each other. She also was very supportive of him and what he was doing. I do agree that I was realizing more and more that we are viewing the story through Edgar’s eyes.

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