Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (Fourth Estate 2002)
I knew nothing about the book except the little Ann Patchett said about it in Truth and Beauty, namely that it was her breakthrough book. I hadn’t even read the back cover blurb. If you plan to read it, I recommend that you do likewise. I’ll try to give as little way as possible in this blog post.
As the book opens, a world famous opera singer has just finished singing and, members of the audience believe, her accompanist has risen to kiss her, when all the lights in the room, including candles, are extinguished. The performance is in the home of the vice president of a small unnamed Latin American country, part of a birthday dinner for a Japanese businessman, a prospective investor in the country. The sudden darkness is caused by a group of guerrillas who are there to kidnap the country’s president. A hostage situation ensues.
If, like me, you come to this narrative with a real siege in mind – like the one in Martin Place where two hostages were killed – you may find the subtly comic tone uncomfortable. Luckily, some way into reading the book I watched the first Die Hard movie on TV, and this turned out to be a much better context for my reading experience. Set against Bruce Willis’s heroics and Alan Rickman’s urbane, ruthless villainy, there’s something wonderful about Patchett’s focus on the unheroic, unvillainous, and mostly un-urbane relationships within the besieged building. It’s not exactly a humanised case of multiple Stockholm Syndrome, nor is it a benign reimagining of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, but it has elements of both those, as well as a meditation on the role of art, a multi-dimensional love story, a political tragedy and many other things.
It completely won me over.