Bel Canto is an award winning novel by American author Ann Patchett. When terrorists invade the Vice President’s mansion in an unnamed Latin American country where a lavish party is taking place to celebrate the birthday of visiting Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, a series of events is set in motion that alters the life of every person incarcerated during the siege that follows. The only woman not to be released by the kidnappers is American opera diva Roxane Coss, who has been flown in especially to perform at the party in honour of her greatest fan, Mr. Hosokawa, and it is her singing that becomes the catalyst for the narrative and music that becomes the common language that binds the hostages and captors together in an emotional exploration of love and friendship.
Although held against their will, the mansion becomes a blissful cocoon without any of the demands normally found on a daily basis in the outside world, and life ironically becomes a little piece of heaven on earth. Days turn into months and the lines between the terrorists and hostages become blurred, and together they transform into something resembling a family, playing chess, cooking and, eventually, falling in love. There are two main love stories running through the book, and despite the fact that Hosokawa and Roxane Coss are unable to communicate in a common language, love blossoms and Hosokawa feels happier than he has ever done before. An unlikely relationship also develops between his young Japanese translator, Gen, and Carmen, a young terrorist to whom Gen secretly teaches Spanish.
This is one of those books that you either love or hate. I personally thought that the pace of the narrative was too slow and that the plot was not credible. However, far from being improbable Patchett based the plot on a real-life situation when the Japanese Embassy in Peru was stormed by terrorists in 1996 when the siege lasted for four months, the same time as in her novel. The ending, although not a complete surprise, is tragic, but one point on which you might agree with me, whether you like the book or not, is that the epilogue is totally unnecessary, and it seems that Patchett added this to tie up some loose ends in the conventional manner found in Hollywood movies! Whatever your take on the storyline, you will find it hard not to be swept along on a wave of emotional fervour by Patchett’s beautiful writing in the same way that a grand opera would evoke feelings of great intensity and passion, ultimately confirming that music, and love, are an essential part of life.