Review: Bel Canto (Ann Patchett)

Bel Canto is about a hostage situation that develops in an unnamed South American country. The story of this book is based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis of 1996 when militants took hundreds of diplomats, businessmen and government officials hostage during a party at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru.

The vice president of the country is hosting a party on the birthday of Katsumi Hosokawa, an influential businessman from Japan. Towards the end of the party a group of militants enter the building to kidnap the President. The president, however, had decided not to attend the party and so the militants take the entire party hostage. Later they decide to keep only those hostages likely to receive large ransoms. Mr. Hosokawa's assistant and translator, Gen Watanabe, Roxanne and Mr. Hosokawa himself are among the people who remain in the house after the others have been released.

As the crisis drags on for months, bonds of friendship are formed all around, even to some extent between the hostages and their captors. Katsumi Hosokawa and Roxanne Coss fall in love with each other despite being unable to speak in each other's language. Gen also falls in love with a beautiful young terrorist, Carmen. The whole book is about the microcosm that the hostages and their captors together create in the house. There is almost no interference from the outside world during the months for which hostages are held captive and throughout the book, we hardly step outside the house.

At times, I found the story a little bit unbelievable especially the behaviour of the hostages. I would have expected them to be a lot more scared than they are shown to be. After the initial panic they settle down comfortably in the house pretty fast without much fear of their captors. I happen to know almost nothing about opera and music, so I did have some trouble understanding the passages about Roxanne's music. Except for that, the book was great to read.

For a book that maintained such a pleasant atmosphere all along, the ending came as a rude shock. Before I read the book, I'd seen quite a few book bloggers complaining about the ending and now I know why. It was too brutal and too inconsistent with the rest of the novel. But then, the entire story was a bit too good to be true. Something unpleasant was bound to happen.

Bel Canto is an operatic term meaning "beautiful song" and Patchett uses this theme very well to bring this whole group of people together. Interestingly, Patchett didn't know much about opera before she wrote this book and she had to read books about it and listen to opera so she could gain some understanding about it. This novel won both the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award in 2002.

Rating. 8/10

Links

Review: Firefly's Book Blog
Review: Great White North
Review: My Year of Reading Seriously
Review: The Orange Prize Project
Review: Shh... I'm Reading

2 comments:

LisaMM said...

Blech I hated this book. Nice review, though.

cj said...

I enjoyed your review, but my take on the behavior of the hostages is that it seemed perfectly natural to me. The terrorists themselves relaxed and began watching TV and playing around. They were kids, after all. You can only maintain a state of fear for so long before it has to diminish or the person collapse.

I've enjoyed looking around your site, too. I hope to be back.

cjh

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