Bel Canto (2001): Ann Patchett

★★★½

It’s meant to be the perfect party. The vice-president of an unnamed South American country throws a lavish birthday gala in honour of Mr Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman. The only difficulty has been getting Mr Hosokawa to attend his own party, since it takes a great deal to winkle him out of his quiet life in Japan. But the vice-president has hit upon the perfect enticement. Mr Hosokawa’s love of opera is legendary, as is his enthusiasm for Roxanne Coss, the world’s leading soprano. Somehow, the vice-president has pulled off the impossible: he has convinced Roxanne Coss to perform for just one night at this party, thereby giving Mr Hosokawa an inducement he can’t ignore. And everything has turned out perfectly. The silver has been polished, the guests – the great and good of the diplomatic world – are assembled, and Roxanne Coss has performed her astonishing recital. For one shimmering moment, everything is as it should be. And then the party is rudely interrupted by a group of terrorists with a grudge against the government: in one second, the guests become hostages. Ann Patchett’s novel follows what happens next. It is a hugely celebrated book – enjoying a level of popular acclaim that, perhaps, leads one to have unjustly high expectations.

You’d imagine that a story about a hostage situation would be a breathless thriller – a race against time, full of intelligence agencies and great escapes. But this isn’t that story. This is the tale of how a group of strangers, confined with one another for months in trying circumstances, gradually become a community. It’s a story of how captors and prisoners begin, simply by existing in the same place for a long time, to have sympathy for one another’s worlds. And it’s a hopeful tale about the way that music makes – and keeps – us human. Certainly, there are diplomatic struggles going on outside, aiming to end the standoff. There are mediators and journalists and the army on high alert. But the specifics of the situation keep it at a stalemate. The terrorists – people from impoverished regions in the jungles, who feel that the government has forgotten them and is trying to erase them – were expecting to find the president here. But the president isn’t here: instead, they find themselves in the awkward situation of having taken the vice-president, along with ambassadors from many different countries, and a renowned singer. It isn’t what they planned. They are a ragtag band of chancers, who can’t quite believe that they’ve ended up where they are – enjoying the comforts of the vice-president’s house, and savouring luxuries which most of them have never tasted before. The world can do what it likes beyond the garden walls. Inside, time slows and blends, as new allegiances are formed, friendships and romances develop, and Roxanne Coss finds that the beauty of her voice becomes a means of keeping the peace.

This is a beautiful book. There’s no doubt about that. Patchett writes beautifully and she shines a light into the human heart that leaves you full of hope. It isn’t surprising that a book which promotes art as the ultimate form of diplomacy won so much critical acclaim: the Orange Prize; the Pen/Faulkner Award; a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Award. It shows us the world as we’d like it to be. We’d like to think, wouldn’t we, that uneducated terrorists in a dangerous country would be charmed, like lions, by the sumptuous strains of an opera aria? We’d like to imagine them being lulled into calm, being reconnected with their ethical selves. While the terrorist leaders aren’t quite so naive, their young foot-soldiers, many of whom are barely out of their teens, find themselves as captivated by Roxanne’s music as they are by the joy of being able to watch their favourite tele-novellas every day on the vice-president’s television. Patchett is interested not so much in the will-they-won’t-they of the hostage situation, as in what happens when you have a group of people trapped together in a confined space. Who takes charge? Who gains power? Who turns out to be the peacemaker; who the antagonist? When the outside world feels so far away, and you’re not entirely sure that you’ll survive another night, do you cling to the thought of your distant wife or family, or do you take the chance to live while you can, in this strange dreamlike world where nothing really seems to count?

I enjoyed Bel Canto very much, but not quite as much as I was expecting to. It’s one of those books that is held up as perfection: a kind of national treasure. Even when I bought this, in a second-hand bookshop inside the central library in San Diego, the lady on the counter gushed, “Oh, you’ll adore this! It’s the best thing I’ve ever read!” With testimonials like that, I think I was expecting to be transformed and transported and yet, for whatever reason, that didn’t happen. I felt that Patchett’s terrorists were too ‘nice’, implausibly averse to bloodshed. The situation goes on just that bit too long. And I found the epilogue disappointing. This is one of those books that doesn’t need an epilogue. The ending is powerful and shocking, and I think it would have been rather splendid just to end the book like that. We’ve been sucked into this strange little world; it seems right that our engagement with the story should end when that does. I didn’t feel that the epilogue added very much to the existing sense of bitter-sweet compassionate pain.

I don’t want to put you off. This is a good book, and well worth reading, but don’t do what I did and come to it with towering expectations. It is thoughtful, generous and full of humanity, but it is not perfection. This experience of reading has proven to me that I enjoy books so much more when I don’t really know what to expect. Call Me By Your Name, I remember, was an excellent example of not really having any expectations whatsoever and being completely crushed and torn-up by the end of it. At the end of Bel Canto I felt quietly sad, and curious about the rest of Patchett’s work, but I don’t feel it’s a book that I’ll be drawn back to again and again. Perhaps that’s my loss. What do you think of this? Did you love it, and do you feel the epilogue was a necessary moment of catharsis? Or did you, too, feel that it was strangely implausible for all its charm?

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