Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto was our May book club choice. It was a reread for several of the members, but for me it was my very first time. I’m now wondering why on earth I left it so long to read.

Bel Canto is a glorious story about the power of song to soothe the beast within us all and to bring us together, regardless of class, culture, language or education.

I had no idea what to expect from this story initially; I knew nothing about it at all. I thought, perhaps, that it was a story about the opera. Imagine my shock when the the story begins with a dramatic hostage situation in a South American vice-presidential home one night in the middle of a private party for a Japanese delegation.

The bel canto reference is for the opera singer, Roxane, engaged to sing at the party. Her voice personifies the musical definition of ‘full, rich, broad tone and smooth phrasing‘. She has the entire party in her thrall, including the future terrorists hiding in the walls waiting to spring out and begin the hostage drama.

Patchett subtly explores the Stockholm syndrome that ensues. In psychological terms it is an alliance between the hostages and their captors designed to act as a survival strategy. Patchett shows us, that in this particular story, it can work both ways as the terrorists also become attached to their hostages. According to wikipedia, Stolkholm syndrome is seen as an irrational and possibly dangerous situation. Patchett shows us the logic, the necessity and the naturalness of this syndrome. It is simply a matter of one human being reaching out, responding to and connecting with another. It becomes inevitable.

Bel Canto is about humanity and what makes us human. It’s about the things that bring us together, rather than tear us apart. It’s the power of music and beauty to save us all.

First published 2001

Favourite Character: Carmen – brave, smart and caring but caught up in a situation out of her control.

Favourite Quote: “When I hear Roxane sing I am still able to think well of the world,” Gen said. “This is a world in which someone could have written such music, a world in which she can still sing that music with so much compassion. That’s proof of something, isn’t it?

Favourite or Forget: I will never forget this story.

Facts:

  • Based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis (also called the Lima Crisis) of 1996–1997 in Lima, Peru.
  • Winner of the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize).
  • Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
  • I was in a choir for several years – we called ourselves Bel Canto.

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