Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Long on the ‘to do’ reading list, I’m delighted finally to have read Bel Canto (2001) by Ann Patchett ( this Easter 2018. The novel was awarded both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

In December 1996, 14 members of the Tupac Amaru guerrilla group entered the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, seized nearly 600 hostages and demanded the release of a number of political prisoners. The resulting siege lasted four months, captured international headlines and ended in a bloody assault by the Peruvian military. Loosely inspired by that event, Ann Patchett’s fourth novel is set in the vice-presidential mansion of an unnamed South American capital, where some 200 foreign diplomats, government officials and businessmen have gathered to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese electronics mogul and opera buff named Katsumi Hosokawa.

The intention is to charm the industrialist into investing in the host country and the bait dangled before him is a recital by the lyric soprano Roxane Coss. Mr. Hosokawa has already attended 18 of her performances in concert halls around the world, often inventing business trips that will place him in the audience. But never before has he heard her in such a close, intimate setting. This opportunity is too rare to be missed.

The country’s president has been unwilling to forgo a climactic moment in his favourite television programme. To him, no number of glorious arias and no number of supposed commercial opportunities are worth missing the valiant attempts of a soap-opera heroine named Maria to free herself from captivity. His obsession with Maria’s fate also causes President Masuda to avoid captivity himself, when members of a rebel group called La Familia de Martin Suarez storm the vice-presidential mansion.

No sooner have the wider issues of international affairs receded than the intricacies of the relationships between captors and captives come to the fore. In this crisis, Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, Gen Watanabe, who, despite an extraordinary bent for languages, ‘was often at a loss for what to say when left with only his own words’,  discovers both his voice and his emotions. Vice President Iglesias assumes the dual roles of housekeeper and gracious host as the standoff stretches on. And Tetsuya Kato, a Nansei Electronics vice president with ‘a reputation for being very good with numbers’, lets his artistic soul take wing. Most interesting, Roxane, the lone woman remaining after many of the hostages are released, realizes the true power of the music that has been her life’s work, causing her to sing as if she was saving the life of every person in the room. Joined by no common language except music, the 58 international hostages and their captors forge unexpected bonds. Time stands still, priorities rearrange themselves. Ultimately, of course, something has to give. This is where Patchett excels – in offering fine insights into the various ways in which human connections can be forged, whatever pressures the world may place upon them. This is a thought-provoking modern novel, and one to savour.

Enquire at your local library. Check if this piece of literary fiction is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at

336 pages in Fourth Estate

First published 2001

ISBN  978-1841155838

Ann Patchett

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