Novel set in 1960s Frankfurt, looking back to WW2
Location(s): South America
Genre(s): Fiction, Romance, Thriller
In Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honour of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air-conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favourite soap opera–and thus, from the beginning, things go awry.
Among the hostages are not only Hosokawa and Roxanne Coss, the American soprano, but an assortment of Russian, Italian and French diplomats. A Swiss Red Cross negotiator named Joachim Messner is roped into service while on holiday. He comes and goes, wrangling over terms and demands, and the days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months.
With the omniscience of magic realism, Ann Patchett flits in and out of the hearts and psyches of hostage and terrorist alike, and in doing so reveals a profound, shared humanity. Her voice is suitably lyrical, melodic, full of warmth and compassion. Hearing opera sung live for the first time, a young priest reflects:
Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the centre part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven.
Joined by no common language except music, the 58 international hostages and their captors forge unexpected bonds. Ultimately, of course, something has to give, even in a novel so imbued with the rich imaginative potential of magic realism.
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