The point of departure for Ann Patchett's new novel is the raid, in December 1996, on the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, which lasted for more than four months and during which one hostage and 14 rebels were killed. Bel Canto, like La Traviata, opens on a wonderful party. In the unnamed capital of an underdeveloped country, the vice-president is hosting a birthday party for a Japanese industrialist. Mr Hosokawa has been seduced into attending the party, held in his honour, by the promise of a private performance from the world-famous soprano Roxane Coss. As the last notes of the aria from Dvorak's Rusalka settle on a rapt and prestigious international audience, the lights go out and another uninvited audience, ragged and gun-toting, bursts from underground and takes the whole party hostage.
This is a promising basis for a novel: a canny way to combine the austere desert island scenario with high culture, and a neat means of imposing the classical dramatic constraints on action, character and setting. Patchett is an astute and amusing observer of bourgeois shock, immediately dividing the female hostages into two groups: those who expect to survive and are careful not to crease their gowns as they lie down on the drawing-room floor, and those quicker to anticipate death or worse and abandon their sartorial preoccupations. She continues to divide and subdivide the group by temperament, nationality, religion and intellect, but soon the problem faced by the terrorists becomes Patchett's own: there are simply too many of these people and some of them must go.
For their part, the terrorists only meant to take a single hostage, President Masuda, who should have been at the party but wasn't, because it clashed with his favourite soap opera. They are a splinter organisation of impoverished outlaws, aiming to overthrow the government in the name of the people; most of them adolescents following a doughty old general, painfully disfigured by shingles. When General Alfredo collapses in an armchair, his face covered in blisters, sighing with relief because most of the hostages have been released and the remaining 40 will be much more manageable, Patchett's own relief is also audible. She gives very fleeting attention to the problem of establishing discipline and routine in such peculiar circumstances, noting that "a week after Mr Hosokawa's birthday party ended seems as good a place as any" to rejoin the story. And she homes in on the love interest that emerges, in true operatic style, between two couples: Hosokawa and Coss (sharing only the language of music); and Hosokawa's fantastically skilled translator, Gen, and a girl terrorist called Carmen.
The best parts of this uneven novel are the most hammed-up and comically implausible. They offer a novelistic celebration of opera, where no one ever held wild improbability against a charming libretto. In the necessary absence of music and singing, farce comes out on top. There is an excellent scene in the kitchen where a French hostage settles down to preparing coq sans vin, directing a line-up of terrorists wielding confiscated kitchen knives. But many of the more passionate and romantic scenes seem wooden and affected. "Her knees touched his legs. If he took even half a step back he would be on the commode." The beleaguered General Alfredo is far from convincing when he insists, "We are an army, not a conservatory." All around, people burst into song as they rediscover the importance of music. As a result, the community of prisoners and guards acquires a surprisingly anodyne, ad hoc identity as the weeks pass, making the predictable (and authorially predicted) bloody ending all the more baffling. It's like gunmen breaking into the Big Brother house and murdering the inmates: horribly silly.