Ann Patchett's Bel Canto won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner award, and having read it now I'm not surprised at its success.
What did I most love and admire about it? There's the tone, for starters, the lightness and the humour used to tell a story about a dark and dangerous situation. The author doesn't take herself or her tale too seriously, but instead has a quiet smile over so many details. Then there's the intensity or compression of the narrative: one location, one almost unchanging group of people, a long series of days of boredom, of routine, of sameness, and yet what could have been tedious to read, had it been written in a blunt, unsophisticated or heavy-handed way, is light and airy and 'lifted'. And in a clever play on the old 'pen is mightier than the sword' adage, the masterly pitting of music and musicians and the power of the voice against terrrorists - albeit a rather unprofessional bunch of them - with guns ("... no one was going to shoot a soprano."). All this done by means of a shrewd sense and keen eye for detail, and clever, beautifully crafted lines.
The juxtaposition of the mundane and the grandiose - the small but pressing personal concerns seen against the dramatic scenario and the principles-motives-actions chain of events ("... he longed for a hot compress almost as much as he longed for revolution."); the stripping away of façades and habitual behaviour, thoughts and beliefs, by a state of affairs which causes transformation and true colours to be revealed ("He was not himself. He was no-one he had ever imagined."); the shifting of loyalties and the gradual emergence of Stockholm Syndrome; the surprising ending, all these things showed Ann Patchett's gift for ideas and for working so creatively with her raw material that the end product is superb.
A book about a group of hostages and their captors in a vice-presidential residence in a South American country would not, on the face of it, be something I'd be drawn to, but in Ann Patchett's hands this is marvellous stuff - beautiful, fanciful, funny, knowing. I loved it, and I could go on, but I've said enough, except - if you haven't read it already - to recommend Ann Patchett's most recent novel State of Wonder (there's a post on it here).
Now over to you.
(Later: the Bel Canto cake is now here.)