"When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her" is a great first line. Within a few lines we are hooked, wondering why the lights went out. And then the terrorists burst in.
It is a birthday party for the head of a Japanese company hosted in the house of the Vice President of a Spanish American country which hopes that the Japanese company will invest in their country. The mogul is an opera fan so his favourite diva has been paid a fortune to sing. There are many honoured guests including the French ambassador, a Monsignor and a humble priest who loves opera and knew a friend of a friend. The president should have been there - it was him the terrorists were hoping to kidnap - but he stayed away to watch his favourite TV programme. So the terrorists (three generals and a bunch of teenagers) take the guests hostage and settle in for a long siege.
Under these conditions, people learn to appreciate different things, people change, people learn about themselves and others. Most of the besieged are mesmerised by the singing and the charisma of the great opera star. The French ambassador realises how much and how deeply he loves his wife. The Vice President settles into his role as a host and starts to clean his own house, for the first time ever taking pleasure in doing domestic chores. Gen the translator, a shadow of the media, becomes the most important person in this polyglot micro-world. Love begins to blossom.
The teenage soldiers are really children. Exposed to things they have never experienced before, they begin show previously hidden talents. One is a wonderful singer who could be an opera star. One learns to play chess. One learns how to tell the time. But hanging over them is the shadow of their inevitable fate. They are children but they are doomed.
Patchett writes beautifully. The story is told from multiple points of view, a difficult perspective but we never lose sight of who is thinking what. There are perfectly formed descriptions which tell just enough and never too much. There are moments of lyrical love, love in all its aspects, and there are moments of brutality and fear and there are some very funny bits as well (my favourite is Beatriz, a girl terrorist soldier with a wonderfully teenaged attitude problem). But we never forget the tension and the end which is coming.
This is a book which makes you glory in the joy of life and the potential of human beings and the wonder of love and then breaks your heart.
Is there anything in the fact that Carmen, one of the female soldiers, shares her name with the tragic eponymous heroine of Bizet's Opera and that Beatriz, another female soldier, whose name means 'brings joy' is the literally poisonous eponymous heroine of Rappacini's daughter, a Spanish American opera which premièred in 1991?
March 2016; 318 pages
Patchett has also written Commonwealth, a very different book although it is also told from multiple points of view. It is about an American 'blended' family. The six children run wild in their summer holidays. Tragedy results. Guilt haunts. Read it!
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57