Love in the time of a terror attack
One of life’s great thrills for me is to chance upon in a bookstore, unexpectedly, a title I have been looking for for a long time. It happend to me the other day in a bookshop in Kolkata. And I am still as much basking in the glow of that serendipitous discovery as feeling awed by the book itself after having finished it.
Ever since a couple of my writer friends had recommended her, I have been meaning to read Ann Patchett – one of America’s best-known novelists. I hadn’t stumbled upon anything by her till I found Bel Canto in the store in Kolkata. I’d been thinking about the book after the terror attacks of November 26, particularly when the stories of those who had been trapped in the Taj and the Trident began to emerge.
How would a novelist imagine something like this? Wasn’t there such promising material in the hours that these strangers spent together? What would a fine novelist do with it?
Well, having read Bel Canto, the 2001 novel which won Patchett the Orange Prize in the UK and the Pen/Faulkner Award in the US, I know. The novel has at its heart a terrorist attack on an international gathering of guests in a volatile, unnamed South American country. Patchett said in an interview that the idea of the novel came to her the night a terrorist organisation took over the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, in December 1996.
The novel is, as Christina Konig wrote in the Times (London), “that rarity – a literary novel you simply can’t put down”. In turns chillingly violent and gloriously delicate and tender, Patchett uses the template of the thriller only to subvert it. Bel Canto is about a terror attack all right, but it really is about much else: resilience, unexpectedness, the place of art in our lives., and, most compellingly, love. It is wry and violent in equal measures, and, by the time you have finished it, you know it is not so much a literary thriller but a sly, sharply observed social comedy.
Alex Clark, who was a judge for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, called it “electrifying”. Read her review here.
Bel Canto is the novel, John Updike wrote in the New Yorker, “that promoted [Patchett] from the private to the major in the embattled rank of literary novelists”. What’s more, it is the best sort of book with which to discover an author. I now want to read all Patchett’s novels. And you know what? The store I bought this one from also has her 2007 novel, Run. I’ve just read its review in The New York Times.