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Arts in Review

Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

To read an author whose talent and imagination leads them through an array of genres is an interesting change from modern authors who stick to the familiar. Patchett is one such example, moving through the tangled Amazon in State of Wonder, to a home for unwed mothers in the 1960s in Patron Saint of Liars; from a father trying to protect his children in Run to a magician’s widow delving into the secrets of her deceased husband in The Magician’s Assistant. And now Bel Canto, a quiet reflection of twisted, lovely, complex, human relationships

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By Sasha Moedt (The Cascade) – Email

Date Posted: October 11, 2011
Print Edition: October 5, 2011

It is common for modern authors to stick to their guns and avoid experimenting with style. To read an author whose talent and imagination leads them through an array of genres is an interesting change. Patchett is an example of such an author. In her novels, she moves through the tangled Amazon in State of Wonder, to a home for unwed mothers in the 1960s in Patron Saint of Liars; from a father trying to protect his children in Run to a magician’s widow delving into the secrets of her deceased husband in The Magician’s Assistant.

All of Patchett’s novels contain a central theme: the twisted, lovely, complex nature of human relationships. Bel Canto is a quiet reflection of these relationships at their deep-seated level.

The novel is set on one floor of a wealthy mansion. The characters are intimately connected yet culturally dissimilar. Patchett thrusts her characters into circumstances where they must cross language, class and cultural barriers to survive.
The story opens at a birthday party for a powerful and wealthy Japanese businessman. The party is hosted by a struggling South American country in the hopes of luring him into creating some form of industry.

The party is beautiful. Most beautiful of all is the lyric soprano’s sweet, strong voice: the only reason Mr. Hosokawa agreed to attend. The other members of the party listening to the performance are investors and ambassadors from around the world, misled as to Mr. Hosokawa’s intentions. The Italians, the French, the Russian, the German – priests, politicians, wives, businessmen, servers, and translators listen to the entrancing aria from Rusalka.

Patchett slowly looks at the characters. She muses about why they are there, and what this party means to them. Mr. Hosokawa is in raptures hearing the soprano, Roxane Coss, sing. The Vice President of the country grumbles to himself about the last minute cancellation the President made in order to watch his favourite soap opera. And the accompanist is madly in love with Miss Coss.

Patchett sets a leisurely, dream-like opening which is violently interrupted. The story leaps into another direction as terrorists take the mansion by force. This is the premise of Patchett’s story: a tale of hostages. The terrorists seek the President, but he is at home in a dark room, in front of his glowing television. When they cannot find the President, they take the valuable prisoners instead.

With a setting and scenario such as this, another writer might focus on the action: the fierce takeover, the negotiations, the politics behind the terrorism, the dangerous government rescue, but Patchett takes a more understated route, weaving her story in the psyches of hostage and terrorist.

There are 60 people within the mansion. As negotiations with the waiting military ensue, the interactions between hostages and the terrorists evolve into something compassionate and quiet. The hostages must eat, smoke, talk, and relieve themselves. Months pass. The terrorists cannot keep up their constant hostile vigilance; they cannot continue pointing loaded guns warily at a group of weary prisoners, jumping at every move. Someone must cook the chicken for dinner. Someone must sweep the floors. Someone must translate Spanish to Russian, Japanese to English, Italian to German.

Patchett creates a world of her own. She works with the shifting balance of power between captor and captive. She accentuates the strength of a voice, the ease in which someone falls in love, and the nature of a volatile situation mellowing into humorous friendship.

Bel Canto translates to “beautiful singing” and in Patchett’s story, beautiful singing steers the situation towards harmony within the mansion. Her story is a brutal situation gently writ, an acknowledgment that art brings understanding, and understanding brings peace.

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