Category Archives: Orange Prize

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett #bookreview

Bel CantoAnn Patchett’s Bel Canto makes a grand claim for the power of music not only to sustain the spirit in the bleakest of times but even to transform a life.

In an unnamed South American country,  the world-renowned soprano Roxane Coss sings at a birthday party in honour of a visiting Japanese industrial magnate. She’s the bait in a plan by the hosts to persuade Mr Katsumi Hosokawa, one of her biggest fans, to rescue their failing economy by building an electronics factory in their country. Unfortunately the plans go awry because on the night of the party in the vice presidential mansion, a band of guerrillas swarm in through the air ducts. Their quarry is the president but he’s nowhere to be found having decided he much preferred to stay home watching his favourite  TV soap opera rather than entertain a room of distinguished and powerful diplomats and leaders from around the world.

Taking advantage of a bad situation the invaders decide to take all the party goers hostage and use them as bargaining tools to secure the release of their comrades held in prison. They’re pretty ineffective negotiators and not much better at controlling the hostages. It soon becomes clear that it’s the soprano who is calling the shots. During the month-long standoff with neither government nor guerrillas giving ground, her singing keeps the atmosphere calm. Soon the guerrillas are running around to satisfy her whims just to keep her singing — one minute they are finding dental floss and herbal throat lozenges for her, the next it’s musical scores she needs.

Unexpected talents and depths of character emerge during the stand-off. The vice president for example assumes the dual roles of housekeeper and gracious host:

He seemed to think that the comfort of his guests was still his responsibility. He was always serving sandwiches and picking up cups. He washed the dishes and swept and twice a day he mopped up the floors in the lavatories. With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge … Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country.

Near the end of the stand-off he has a moment of epiphany in the garden, appreciating for the first time the sensation of grass beneath his feet and the scent of flowers. And he resolves there and then to be a better man, a better father and a better husband.

Change comes to the rebels too. Enchanted by the grandeur of their surroundings they begin wandering through the house sniffing hand lotion and snaffling pistachio nuts. They become so hooked on a TV drama (the same one that delights the president) much to the disgust of their commander,  they begin missing drills or fitting them in around the program schedules.

Amid the tension, love is kindled. For Mr Hosokawa, proximity to his idol is a dream come true. He has already seen her 18 times in performances around the world, often inventing business trips that will place him in the audience. Hearing her in the close, intimate setting of the besieged mansion, admiration burgeons into love. Captivity also brings romantic fulfilment for his loyal translator Gen Watanabe, in the form of a guerrilla fighter appropriately named Carmen for whom her time in the house is the happiest point in her life.

Roxane and Mr Hosokawa, Gen and Carmen are the novel’s principals but they are surrounded by a strong cast including a Frenchman, Simon Thibault, who weeps into the stole his beloved wife leaves behind when all the women except Roxane are allowed to leave. There’s a Red Cross representative who interrupts his holiday to act as a hostage negotiator though in his suit and tie he looks more like “an earnest representative of an American religion” and a chain-smoking Russian, who makes an unexpectedly delicate declaration of love, regaling Roxane with mournful and meandering childhood stories.

What unites the 50 or so people thrust together in the mansion, is music.

Mr Hosokawa’s eleventh birthday was a life-changing experience. It was the first time he heard opera,  a moment imprinted on his eyelids that marked the beginning of his love affair with music, a love that surpassed all other interests and responsibilities.

The records he cherished, the rare opportunities to see a live performance, those were the marks by which he gauged his ability to love. Not his wife, his daughters or his work. He never thought that he had somehow transferred what should have filled his daily life into opera. Instead he knew that without opera, this part of himself would have vanished forever.

In the vice presidential music a young priest undergoes a similar experience when he hears opera sung live for the first time.

It was different in ways he could never have imagined, as if the voice were something that could be seen. Certainly it could be felt … It trembled inside the folds of his cassock, brushed against the skin of his cheeks. Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness.

For her part Roxane comes to appreciate 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.” Patchett’s idea of the power of music does strain too far however when Roxane takes an interest in one of the rebels she discovers is a musical prodigy, able to repeat perfectly the notes and lines that she sings. As if her readers don’t really understand that this talent could be his escape route from poverty, Patchett makes the General her mouthpiece:

It makes you wonder, All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected  we knew how.

Such a cod piece of philosophy strikes a really duff note in an otherwise absorbing and finely tuned novel about the the various ways in which human connections can be forged, even in the most unlikely of circumstances and situations.

Footnotes

About the book: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett was first published in UK by Fourth Estate in 2001. My paperback copy dates from 2002. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002. The novel is loosely inspired by an event in December 1996 when members of a 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.

About the author: Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles in 1963. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Bel Canto is her fourth novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

Burnt shadowsShortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize, Burnt Shadows spans the half a century between two events that shocked the world; the nuclear attack on Nagasaki and the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. Along the way it covers a multitude of other subjects from Indian Partition to the war in Afghanistan, from the divide between colonial settlers and the native inhabitants of the land they occupy and from the ties that bind family members together to the ties that bind a person to their homeland.

An ambitious novel and yet it begins very simply and with an air of innocence. Hiroko Tanaka steps out onto her veranda in Urakami Valley to admire the view of terraced slopes lit by a perfectly blue sky. Dressed in a kimono patterned with three black cranes that swoop across the back, she stands quietly; a young woman on the cusp of a new life with the man she loves. Within seconds her dream is destroyed, an explosion throwing her to the ground; the heat fusing something to her skin.

She touches the something else on her back. Her fingers can feel her back but her back cannot feel her fingers. Charred silk, seared flesh. How is this possible? … So much to learn. The touch of dead flesh. The smell — she has just located where the acrid smell comes from — of dead flesh.

In the aftermath of the bomb that obliterates her fiancé Konrad and her community, all that is left are the bird-shaped burns on her back. Two years later she arrives in Delhi, a city in the twilight of the Raj. She is looking to begin a new life and to erase the stigma of being branded a hibakusha, a survivor of the bomb.  Slowly she builds a new life, with the help of Konrad’s half sister Elisabeth and the love of the family servant Sajjad Ashraf.

Over the years as she moves home, to Istanbul and Karachi and finally to New York, her endurance is tested to the extreme. Through the redemptive power of love and friendship she is able to escape the shadows of the past. But not so her son Raza.  He will never be able to marry the girl he loves because of that past:

It’s your mother. Everyone knows about her.

What about her?

Nagasaki. The bomb. No-one will give their daughter to you in marriage unless they are desperate Raza. You could be deformed.  … You might have something you can pass on to your children.

Perhaps it’s his realisation he is a marked man that drives Raza to take the rather naive step of heading to an Afghanistan training camp with his Afghan friend Abdullah. The experience simply deepens his feeling of enduring guilt, and lead him to make yet another mistake when he joins forces with a former covert CIA Operator in Afghanisation to run a private security firm.

Raza is a complex character but it’s Hiroko, a woman who quietly makes a new life for herself without ever forgetting the past, who stole the show for me.  She holds the fragments of this epic story together and whenever she is missing from the text, the book seems to lose its identity. At times the didactic element of the writing was intrusive but overall I was drawn to the lives of these characters and admired how Kamila Shamsie roamed so widely across the canvas of international politics.

 

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

I picked up Gillespie and I by Jane Harris in an airport bookshop hoping it would keep me so engrossed I wouldn’t notice the length of the flight.  It seemed it would tick all the boxes – historical setting, a sense of mystery and it came from the pen of an author whose name I kept hearing though I had never read nothing by Jane Harris myself.

The story reminded me of Willkie Collins’ sensation and mystery stories and is told at a similar fast pace. It’s narrated by Harriet Baxter, an elderly spinster who recalls a chance encounter 45 years previously with Ned Gillespie – a talented artist who we are soon informed, died before his fame was fully recognised. Harriet meets him again during a visit to the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888 – and quickly becomes close friends with the Gillespie family. Dark shadows hover over their somewhat Bohemian home as one of the daughters begins to behave in an alarmingly malicious way towards her sibling and other members of the household. And then Harriet finds herself propelled into a family tragedy and a notorious court case.

The period atmosphere was convincing. Harriet’s recollections of the past come with lots of detail about  houses, dresses, domestic routines as well as the atmosphere of the exhibition ground.  Unlike many other novels with historical settings, Harris’ manages to avoid dialogue that feels flat and clunky with anachronisms.

The key to this novel however lies not in what we are told but more in what we are not told. First person narrators in novels are frequently unreliable witnesses or interpreters. Harriet Baxter is a master of deception. She portrays herself as a generous-hearted person yet is prone to make waspish comments about the other women in the Gillespie household. She believes herself to be uniquely positioned to  tell the truth about the unrecognised genius of Ned Gillespie and set the record straight about the events in which she was enmeshed as a young woman. But her approach is somewhat elliptical. She makes frequent dark allusions to tragedies yet to be revealed.  “If only we had known then what the future held in store,” she says early on. Harriet Baxter is such a master of hints and suggestions however that the only way the reader does in fact get to know what really occurred is by following the breadcrumb trail of those clues and by reading between the lines. By the end, you almost feel that you have to read it again for everything to fall into place.

If I had a gripe with the novel it lay in the ending. It didn’t so much end as just seem to peter out as if it had run out of steam. I didn’t feel cheated because the novel had done exactly what I needed it to do – keep be engaged so I didn’t notice the cramped and confined conditions of my journey. But I did expect it to come to some form of a resolution.

Now, with the benefit of a few months gap, I can see that instead of this being a weakness of the novel, it was in fact one of its strengths. Harris, like her narrator, is an arch manipulator, leading me through the labyrinth of her novel and making me believe that all would be revealed. But like Harriet Baxter, she leaves me to work out the truth.

Footnote: Gillespie and I was long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012. Read more reviews about Orange Prize winners and contenders at the Orange Prize Project blog

How important are book covers?

Joanna Trollope, this year’s chief judge of the Orange Prize, has apparently created something of a stir by suggesting readers are as much influenced by a book’s cover, as by its contents. The literati has of course reacted to the contrary –  hardly surprising given they sweated hours over the words whereas the cover is mainly down to the publisher’s creative and marketing teams.  So naturally they’re going to take a stance that their own work is what really matters.

Joanna isn’t wrong though. I was looking at the cover of my current read – Something to Answer For  – and it definitely isn’t one that shouts ‘Read Me’. It’s mainly an off white shade with a small sepia tinted photo of a man’s face in the middle and just the title and author’s name. The photo doesn’t give any clues as to the genre or the theme. The fact that this edition was published more than 20 years ago has something to do with the uninspiring design I suspect – it looks very much of its time. If I didn’t have it on my reading list just because it was a Booker prize winner, then I wouldn’t have given it a second look in the bookstore.

I haven’t read much of this book yet, but two other things I’m already not keen on:

  • The typeface doesn’t sit cleanly against the paper – the edges are a bit jagged as if it was typed not typeset
  • He introduces too many character names too quickly so I get distracted trying to work out who they all are. I hope this settles down soon otherwise this is going to be hard going….
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