Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002, ‘Bel Canto’ by Ann Patchett is set during a birthday party for Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa held in his honour at the vice-president’s mansion in an unnamed South American country. While entertainment is provided by renowned American opera singer Roxane Coss, the property is suddenly stormed by terrorists who had originally planned to kidnap the president. However, in his absence, they end up holding dozens of guests under house arrest for several months.
I think the level of enjoyment obtained from reading ‘Bel Canto’ depends almost entirely on whether you read it as a realist or as a romantic. This probably applies to a lot of fiction but particularly so for a novel like ‘Bel Canto’ which brings together elegant literary prose with a setting more typically associated with a thriller – the novel is loosely inspired by a real siege at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Peru in 1995 which lasted for four months.
From a realist perspective, there are a lot of highly improbable scenarios and coincidences to get annoyed about here. Mr Hosokawa romantically pursues Roxane despite neither of them sharing a common language while the translator Gen Watanabe and Carmen, one of the terrorists, also fall in love. There is relatively little panic among the hostages, nor do they seriously consider any escape plans. The terrorists and hostages eventually become united by the transcendental power of music and everyone is permanently enchanted by Roxane’s singing. One of Mr Hosokawa’s business associates is suddenly revealed to be a superb pianist over half way through. I could go on.
On the other hand, suggesting that the plot of ‘Bel Canto’ ought to be a bit more restrained or realistic would be missing the point somewhat. Many of the most famous operas (and soap operas) are full of utterly ridiculous plot twists and it is only appropriate that Patchett captures this element in a novel which deliberately mirrors their structures and themes. She manages to defy expectations in other imaginative ways too. Rather than gathering pace towards an explosive ending in the manner of a conventional thriller, the story becomes increasingly languorous before its sudden yet inevitably tragic conclusion.
As to be expected when applying the conventions of opera to literary fiction, ‘Bel Canto’ is beautifully told if dramatically flawed and I can see why it would greatly appeal to some readers but not others. Patchett’s latest book ‘Commonwealth’ sounds intriguing as does her collection of essays ‘This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage’ and I would love to know how ‘Bel Canto’ – which probably remains her best known novel – compares to her other work.