A few weeks ago I was enthusing about Ann Patchett's Run, a fine, warm, moving novel and one I enjoyed enormously. I knew that she'd won the Orange Prize for her previous work, Bel Canto, and managed to get my hands on it a few days ago. I must say at once that this will be a very strong contender for the best novel I've read this year -- a truly wonderful piece of writing. To tell the story is hard, since a bare account of the narrative can't do justice to the subtlety and perceptiveness of the way Patchett writes. But here goes anyway. The story begins at a party, in an unnamed South American state. It is the 53rd birthday party of a visiting Japanese industrialist, Mr Hosokawa, whose importance has led to a very grand occasion being laid on for him at the house of the Vice President, Ruben Iglesias. In fact Mr Hosokawa has only agreed to make what is actually a spurious trade mission because he has been promised a recital by his idol, the famous and beautiful opera singer Roxanne Coss. At the end of the recital, the lights go out and the house is stormed by a group of terrorists seeking to capture the President of the country. Discovering him to be absent (he has stayed at home to watch his favorite soap opera on TV), they take over the house and hold the male members of the party hostage. They also keep Roxanne Coss. Why? Because she can sing.
There were worse reasons to keep someone hostage. You keep someone always for what he or she is worth to you, for what you can trade her for, money or freedom or somebody else you want more. Any person can be a kind of trading chip when you find a way to hold her. So to hold someone for song, because the thing longed for was the sound of her voice, wasn't it all the same?
Having failed in their major objective to capture the president, the terrorists start making list after list of demands which the government of the country simply ignores. Days stretch into weeks, and weeks into months. Food is brought in, Roxanne's expensive shampoo is flown over from Italy, and a box of musical scores is acquired which enables the ill-assorted residents to have daily recitals in Roxanne's sublime voice. And slowly, over time, the harsh conditions are relaxed. Mr Hosokawa starts to play chess with one of the terrorist generals. A couple of the young soldiers prove to be girls, and one of them, the beautiful Carmen, grows close to Roxanne, who washes and braids her long black hair and lets her rest on the soft guest-bedroom bed. Thibault, a French hostage, turns out to have a talent for cooking and soon the young soldiers are in the kitchen chopping carrots, while Kato, one of the Japanese, reveals his skill as a pianist and accompanies Roxanne's recitals. After months of fog, the weather changes and the generals allow the residents into the garden for football and walks. And, as you might expect, people fall in love, and, for a while, live in a state of extraordinary happiness and fulfillment. Of course we know this cannot last, and of course everything comes to an end in a sad and shocking way. But the novel's epilogue, though strange and surprising, perhaps, is ultimately redemptive and, though I know some readers have not liked it, for me it was, in fact, the only obvious way things could end satisfactorily for those concerned.
Patchett writes superbly, and I was completely gripped all the way through this novel by the beauty of her prose as well as by the development of the narrative. But I think it is her skill in looking into the human heart that makes Patchett such an exceptional writer. There are so many wonderful characters in this book: Ruben, the Vice President, who discovers a hidden love of housework and takes huge pleasure in polishing his own wooden floors; the young priest, Father Aguedas, who has remained with the hostages voluntarily and who gradually gathers a large congregation of Catholics, non-Catholics, atheists and non-Spanish speakers to his morning mass, and hears numerous unexpected confessions; the sad Russian, Fyodorov, who sits smoking and weeping with his comrades over their shared passion for Roxanne; the terrorist General Benjamin, an ex-schoolteacher, tortured by an attack of shingles and often longing for home; the child soldiers, whose lives gradually come into focus and several of whom are changed irrevocably by their experiences in the house; Mr Hosokawa and Roxanne, of course, who gradually grow closer and closer despite their total lack of a shared language; and Gen, the young Japanese translator who plays a major role in everyone's lives and whose own life is transformed by his love for the young terrorist Carmen.
I could go on about this all day but I can only say read it, please -- and I hope it will give you as much pleasure as it has given me.