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This novel deservedly won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2002. The Orange Prize is for women writers, so how many of you guys out there are now dismissing this as a "woman's book"? There is a strange demarcation line in (most) men's minds about "women's books" and "men's books". I personally am happy to roam either side of this boundary, enjoying Sharpe, Flashman, the Tom Clancy doorstoppers as well as works where the action is more internalised. Jeremy Clarkson once wrote in an article that his wife had been reading a novel "where a woman goes away, has a child and many years later comes back again". "Ha, ha," chortled the blokes in my family, "that's the sort of book Mum reads!" Since then, novels such as Bel Canto have been known chez Chouchin as "Jeremy Clarkson's wife books.
A brief plot outline, no more than you would glean from the dustjacket. An unnamed, poverty stricken Latin American country wants to attract some inward investment. A Japanese corporation is looking to build a new factory and the country's leaders are trying their utmost to attract the chairman to show him what they can offer. They throw a birthday party for the chairman Mr Hosokawa and, as he is an avid opera fan, especially of the singer Roxane Coss, they invite her to give a recital knowing Hosokawa will not be able to refuse to attend. The great and good of the country, foreign ambassadors and Hosokawa gather in the vice-president's home for dinner and the recital. As the last notes fade away, the guerrillas strike and all the guests are taken hostage.
So we have a classic hostage situation presented, much loved of films. The format works because it focuses the action and gives the opportunity for a mix of violence, romance and sub-plots. The tension mounts as we switch between the hostages and the rescuers. Here, though, we are looking at something different. This novel never concentrates on both sides, only on the hostages which is where the action is, both physical and psychological. There are three disparate groups covering several nationalities and cultures: the guerrillas, mostly young, poor, unsophisticated, idealistic (a bit), led by three disaffected army generals; the vice-president and his guests; and a small group of outsiders comprising Hosokawa and his translator Gen, and Roxane Coss and her accompanist. This latter group is both the catalyst and the innocent bystanders caught up in an issue which they cannot directly engage with. What we see in the course of the novel is the changes in these groups, the blurring of the edges as they coalesce, develop interrelationships and make compromises. At the same time the individuals' relationships and relative standings within the groups alter and they make discoveries about each other and themselves. By "capturing" her characters in this way the author has created a microcosm where the previous order and certainties no longer apply and boundaries can be crossed.
Music is a theme of the book in several senses. "Bel canto" means, literally, fine singing, and obviously refers to Roxane Coss and her adoration by Hosokawa which unleashed the action. But the phrase has a more precise meaning in musicology (and I hope for the sake of you music-lovers out there I've got this right). It is a style that puts emphasis on the form, expression and delivery of the singing, and regards the words and context of the piece as secondary. So what the author is cleverly saying is: this situation I've created for my characters, this danger I've put them in and its tragic outcome, these are not the important issues. What matters is the web of relationships that were created in this little world and the personal discoveries that were made. Music becomes the centre of their world, both in providing entertainment during the long siege and as a means of drawing all the participants together in a situation where differing languages are a problem. Its importance develops, like a piece of music itself, from a simple solo melody to a full-blown opera chorus.
The real world is outside the bubble, the only link to the outside being Messner, the Red Cross negotiator. Well that last statement is true in terms of the action of the novel, but there is another more subtle link to the outside world - television. The reason why the vice-president was hosting the reception was that the president wanted to stay at home to watch his favourite American soap. All the guerrilla kids are addicted to the same soap and watch it every day during the hostage situation. Is this the ideal for which they are risking their lives? They are in an unreal situation looking out at an even more unreal representation of a world they yearn to be a part of. TV is also the only view they, the guerrillas and we, the reader, have of the security forces and world press camped on the perimeter. This other world is reduced to a small screen distorted by a camera lens, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. It graphically reflects the distance separating the two worlds and raises the question of what reality is. Messner, the link to the outside, becomes more frazzled and weary as the situation drags on, while the bonds inside the house become stronger.
The writing-style cleverly matches the action. At the beginning the pace is brisk to reflect the attack, the violence and threat of violence, the fear. Then it slows as the situation settles into a waiting-game and the days drag, with the only highlights being Roxane's music and the daily deliveries of food. It picks up again as the inevitable outcome draws near. In truth, this is a novel you don't want to end because you know how these stand-offs are resolved, both in fiction and reality. All 300 pages of fragile structure and delicately woven fabric scattered like a puff-ball. But although the pace slows, the writing is in turn lyrical, funny, wry, moving, capturing both beautiful and farcical moments.
So a novel with many layers of meaning but does it appeal on an emotional level? Are the characters rounded? Are the relationships fully motivated by the personalities? Do we care about Hosokawa, Roxane, Gen, Carmen, Thibault, Cesar? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Much of the meaning is only apparent at the end when you can reflect on the complete work. So turn off the analysis, and simply read and enjoy. Give it a try, guys, and see if you think it worthy of the "Man" Booker prize.
Cover price £7.99. Amazon price £6.39.