Review: Bell Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto

‘How much luck is one person entitled to in a night? Does it come in a limited allotment, like milk in a bottle, and when so much has been poured out then only so much is left? Or was luck a matter of the day, and on the day you’re lucky you are limitlessly lucky?’

I debated for a while about whether I wanted to review Bel Canto. Firstly, I needed a lot of time to digest it. I had read Ann Patchett’s essays before in This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage and I knew she could be quite eclectic in her tastes. With themes ranging from her experience of applying for the Los Angeles Police Department where she had to scale a six-foot wall, to writing about her dog and her love of opera, I remember being pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable I found them even if I couldn’t particularly relate to the topics. I guess if a writer is that good, they will sweep you up in their enthusiasm and skill.

If there’s one thing I learnt from Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel, Bel Canto, it’s that life goes on. Even when unimaginable situations arise, life will continue and even begin to imitate mundane reality. On an unassuming evening at an unspecified Latin-American vice-president’s home, businessmen from all over the globe have come together under the pretence of  celebrating Katsumi Hosokawa’s birthday. The CEO of a major Japanese electronics company, the host country has lured him there in the hopes that he will invest in the country’s economy. Aware of his love for the opera, the vice-president has organised for the renowned Roxanne Coss to perform. An evening of merriment and entertainment ensues, but it is suddenly cut short when a group of terrorists storm the mansion to kidnap the president. However, in the president’s absence, the terrorists decide to keep the guests hostage.

Based loosely on real events that occurred at the Japanese ambassador’s residency in Peru in 1995, the siege in Bel Canto extends far beyond the initial chaos of the climax. As the hostage situation drags on for weeks then months, we begin to learn more about the people who are trapped within the mansion on both sides of the struggle. As time elapses, so do the boundaries between the terrorists and the captured hostages. Tensions morph into an illusion of peacefulness. The terrorists have no desire to hand over their captives; having failed before they even begun, they turn their attentions instead to the valuable opera singer. Enchanted by Roxanne Coss’ spell, however, they give in to her every whim. The hostages have equally given up the prospect of release. Falling into regular patterns and routines, they have no desire to be anywhere other than in the vice-president’s mansion. Through very brief moments of tension and danger, the characters lapse into ennui, and it is in this environment that unlikely relationships emerge between famous opera singers and CEOs, translators and terrorists.

I knew absolutely nothing about opera (and still don’t) so was quite hesitant to touch upon this novel – hence why it had been sitting in my ‘to be read’ pile for years – but I was astounded by Patchett’s ability to impress her knowledge on the reader without it feeling like a lecture of sorts. Though many aspects of the novel – in terms of its stylistic techniques, which are directly imported from operatic performances – went over my head, I thoroughly enjoyed the playful mix of genres Patchett employed from high tragedy to social comedy and sublime romance. Constantly switching between lighthearted and serious, there is an inevitable sense of doom as we approach the final chapters of Bel Canto. I was on tenterhooks as Patchett reveals whose luck will finally run out.



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