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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 books I enjoyed most in 2016

This week’s Top Ten topic,  hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is the ten best books of 2016. By which I take it they mean the books I read in 2016 that I enjoyed the most. I’ve pontificated about this for a few weeks now but can delay no longer. So here is my list. I was surprised to see how many are Booker prize related.

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  1. Top spot goes to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing for her sweeping saga of life in China during the Cultural Revolution and its effects on three musicians. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and in my ever so humble opinion should have been the winner. But the judges disagreed….sigh.
  2. The Many by Wyl Menmuir: a debut novel which was mesmerising even if I didn’t fully understand it. Contained some disturbing ideas about the long term effectof pollution on the sea and fishing stock . It was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize
  3. The North Water by Ian McGuire: Another 2016 Booker contender, this was a rollicking if grim historical adventure set on a whaling ship.
  4. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink: the only non fiction book to make it onto my top 10, this was a thought-provoking detailed examination of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on a hospital in New Orleans and the life/death decisions confronting the medical staff.
  5. Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb: my first experience of this Belgian-born author. After reading this terrific novella about a young girl’s humiliation when she goes to work for a Japanese company and comes bang up against cultural rules and expectations.
  6. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: Another author that I read for the first time in 2016 and what an experience. The plot focuses on a group of people who go to a concert in a Latin American country and end up being taken hostage. Although there is plenty of tension and drama, the real interest for me was in how the different hostages (who include a world famous opera singer, her accompanist and a devoted fan) all respond to music.
  7. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: it’s taken me many years to get around to reading Murakami. It was delightful atmospheric novel about love and loss.
  8. The Gathering by Anne Enright: another Booker title but this time a winner – from 2007. Irish authors often tend to focus on doom and gloom and this one is no exception since it revolves around a sister’s reaction to her brother’s suicide. It’s grim in a sense but Enright portrays the inner life of her protagonist so well I just had to keep reading.
  9. The Narrow Road to the Deep North: by Richard Flanagan: Winner of the Booker Prize in 2014, this is a riveting story account of an Australian doctor who is haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife and his experience as a prisoner of war in Thailand.
  10. My Name is Lucy Barton  by Elizabeth Strout: yet another 2016 Booker contender though I read this long before the Booker judges made their initial selection. It’s the first time I read anything by Strout and on the strength of this tale about a mother/daughter relationship I’ll be keen to read some of her earlier work.

Snapshot August 2016

 

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July came and went in a blink of the eye. August will likely go just as quickly and then all we’ll hear about for the next few months is that dreaded word Christmas. I’ve already seen promotions from a hotel and a local restaurant even though some people have only just headed off for their summer holiday. I know retailers in the UK have been moaning about low sales because of the crap summer weather so far but it’s depressing how the commercial world seems intent on pushing the Christmas season earlier and earlier. I’m going to turn a blind eye to it all and just focus on the month ahead.

So as a new month begins this is a bit of a  wrap up of what’s I’ve been reading recently and what I’m planning or the month ahead.

Just Finished

July readingJuly was a good month during which I managed to read 4 books for the #20booksofsummer challenge and make a little space in the TBR pile.

It’s taken me a few years to get around to reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial.(reviewed here)The subject matter made it challenging but it was worth the effort – the issues raised by Fink about medical ethics during times of disaster have made for some heated discussions among friends and relatives. I also read the wonderful Bel Canto by Ann Patchett -my first experience of her writing but I know it will not the be the last. July saw the completion of two Booker prize winners – Last Orders by Graham Swift and The Life & Times of Michael K by J. M Coetzee.  I had planned to read to short story collections but so far have managed just one of them – The Thing Around My Neck by Chimamanda Adichie with the help of advice in response to my question on how to approach a collection of short stories. Most people recommended I read them in bite size pieces  which helped hugely.

Reading Currently 

I have two books on the go at the moment. Tree of Life: A Novel of the Caribbean is a 1992 novel by the Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Condé. It’s the story of three generations of  one family and their rise from poverty against a backdrop of racial tension and world events like the construction of the Panama Canal and World War 1. It’s my choice for #womeninliterature month. I’m about a third of the way through and finding it OK but not that engaging. Certainly not as riveting as my other read which is Moskva by Jack Grimwood. Set in the 1980s it features  a British intelligence officer sent to Moscow to avoid an investigation over his actions in Northern Ireland. Shortly after his arrival he gets roped in to help find the Ambassador’s daughter who has gone missing. This is a page turner that was highlighted by the Daily Telegraph as one of the best crime novels of 2016. 

On the Horizon  

If it’s August then it has to be AllAugust/AllVirago of which I’ll be reading A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford and posting a few reviews for Viragos I read earlier in the summer but haven’t got around to reviewing yet.  I have a  few NetGalley review copies requiring my attention including  The Sleeping World by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes which is set in 1970s post-Franco Spain and The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke. What comes after that I haven’t yet decided since I don’t like making detailed plans which feel constraining. There’ll certainly be a Booker title in the mix but I know I’m not going to get around to making much of an impression on the 2016 longlist other than reading some samples of each title.

Snapshot July 2016

Wales-football-FansI was far too excited by the phenomenal success of the Welsh national football team to post my July snapshot on the first of the month. Against all the odds they soundly beat off the favourites Belgium last night (ranked number two in the world) to get through to the Euro 2016 semi finals, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament since 1958.

We’re a nation whose passion is normally devoted to a different shaped ball but last night everyone seemed to be glued to the tv screens. Even me whose knowledge of the finer rules of soccer can be written on the back of a beer mat.

Don’t worry I am not about to abandon Booker Talk’s normal fare of literary postings in favour of sports topics but I hope you’ll allow me a little indulgence on this historic occasion.

So what else was I doing on the first of this month??

Just Finished

After months in which my world literature reading project seemed to have stalled, I added one more country to the list – Belgium.  That makes 31 countries completed from a goal of 50 by January 2018. Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb was a delight and thanks to sylvie heroux I have recommendations for three more books by her: The Character of Rain, 
Tokyo Fiancee and  The Stranger Next Door. My review is posted here.

Reading Currently 

I have two books on the go at the moment. Having made good progress so far with the 20booksofsummer challenge run by Cathy at 746 books, I’ve taken a pause to dip into my TBR.

Bel CantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett is a novel I first heard of in 2013 when I was trying to think of books which had a musical theme (other titles are in this post). It got added to my TBR later that year when I found a bargain copy in a library sale.  It’s set in a South American country which is desperate to attract international investment. The president hits on the idea of inviting the head of a powerful electronics  corporation in Japan celebrate his birthday in the country with a lavish party at which a world-renowned soprano will perform.  The President decides at the last minute he has far more important things to do (namely to watch the latest episode of his favourite tv soap opera). Which proves a problem for the insurgents who surround the birthday venue planning to take the president hostage. There follows a stand off between the terrorists and their hostages.  This isn’t an action novel however, but one that looks at the way people react to danger and entrapment and how leaders become impotent while ordinary individuals find new sources of strength. So far it’s wonderful to read.

Five_Days_at_MemorialMy other book is also a story of courage in the face of adversity but this is a true story. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused devastation in New Orleans. The Memorial Medical Center – the city’s premier hospital – endured five days trapped by floodwater.  Its back-up generators failed, leaving it without lights, air conditioning, sewer systems and essential medical equipment.  Medical staff had to prioritise which patients should be evacuated, and – controversially – which patients to euthanise because their conditions were so poor.

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink originated as an article which appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2009 and went on to win  a Pulitzer Prize. Fink details the events of those five days and the investigation that followed into the actions of a few members of the medical team. She then goes on to examine the legal and political consequences of the decision to euthanize patients and the ethical issues surrounding euthanasia and health care in disaster scenarios. I’m only a little way into the book but it’s riveting. There is a chilling prologue which sets the scene. In a reception area, patients lie awaiting rescue amid the miasma of the receding floodwaters. Rescue has started but it is painfully slow. A few members of the medical staff begin to prepare a lethal concoction of drugs for the most critically ill. This is not a book you can read quickly but more one that needs to be read in small chunks to allow for reflection on the key issues.

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