"A cleverly paced, suspenseful novel told with great emotional delicacy: its author earns a powerful, unexpected ending. To be read at a single sitting,"
wrote Erica Wagner in 'The Times' of my latest read.
That's not the way I read, even on holiday. Books are the pleasure to close my days. While when I'm hooked, the light goes out much later than it should have done, one go is usually far too much.
So the, yes, very cleverly paced 'Bel Canto: a Novel' was taken in doses, as I was drawn to hostages and hostage-takers alike, hoping against hope for an ending which would defy the laws of tragedy, stare fate in the face and win.
Just as the bel canto of the title, the fragile beauty of a great art which becomes centrally important to charged, finely wrought relationships between the members of each of the main "sides" in Ann Patchett's claustrophobic huis clos brings a strange kind of redemption in the face of death.
At less length, but with equal insight into character, Patchett reminded me of Pat Barker's phenomenal ability to work her way inside the heads of people caught up in terrible, impossible, almost unimaginable circumstances you just wonder how a writer can get so right, in the latter's 'Regeneration Trilogy'*. With one of several differences, since occasionally you have to remember to stop suspending disbelief.
Roxane Coss is the great diva of an opera lover's dreams, who reluctantly renounces other commitments for an irresistible offer that be star of Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa's birthday party in an unidentified Latin American country. And in the end, the lack of a name doesn't matter.
Hosokawa agrees to come to the poor, dictatorially ruled place, bringing at least a prospect of good deals and business, if Coss -- the woman of whose language he speaks not a word but is his sole escape into art and dream in a life devoted entirely to his work -- can be persuaded to sing for him at his 53rd birthday party. One is lavishly thrown and hosted by puppet Vice-President Ruben Iglesias, the powerless, publicly "acceptable face" of a brutal regime.
With him, Hosokawa brings the bright young Gen Watanabe, polyglot translator and indispensable aide. Gen is set to become vital to all in a multi-lingual stand-off after the party is brought to an abrupt end when the youths and three generals of a well-disciplined, stealthy, armed guerrilla movement burst in on the feast.
The country's president is all they want. At first. But the president turned down his invitation at the last minute, knowing full well that he always would. His favourite television soap opera takes precedence over any affair of state, any visitor, however illustrious.
The days, then weeks, that follow take the shape of any siege you may have read about: the threats, the sudden bursts of violence, the demands, the unpredictable, the bonds that form between captors and captives, a kind of complicity. The L.A.-born Patchett, who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, tells this story with a conviction, a subtleness and, sometimes, a humour which draw you right into each of the hearts in the palatial house.
There are two main love stories in 'Bel Canto' and a host of subsidiary ones. They end partly as the reader knows they must, and yet not, because Patchett does, indeed, surprise. And much is said and achieved without words. This is not "magical fiction" of a Latin American kind, but the prize-winning novelist does succeed in making you identify with people who do sometimes improbable things in settling into their new lives together, with the rules gradually relaxed. That music could hold such sway, for instance, over everybody at the ruined party stretches the imagination.
But the solitary Gen, the fragile girl guerrilla Carmen, a young priest, the increasingly distraught Red Cross official who serves as go-between with the regime outside the walls, the reserved Hosokawa and Iglesias, the impeccable host, are among characters you soon really care about.
Thanks, Mum. Your Chistmas present was far off my usual tracks, but I enjoyed it after all.
*For another day, perhaps. But Barker's brilliant, early 1990s insight (a review, among others) into the savagery, mental torment and dazzling poetry of World War One -- 'Regeneration', 'The Eye in the Door' and 'The Ghost Road' -- was the first thing ever ended in the Métro to take me into work absolutely shaken to the core and blinded by tears. An absolute masterpiece.
1:54:52 PM link