Combining an unerring instinct for telling detail with the broader brushstrokes you need to tackle issues of culture and politics, Patchett (The Magician’s Assistant, 1997, etc.) creates a remarkably compelling chronicle of a multinational group of the rich and powerful held hostage for months.
An unnamed impoverished South American country hopes to woo business from a rich Japanese industrialist, Mr. Hosokawa, by hosting a birthday party at which his favorite opera singer, Roxane Coss, entertains. Because the president refuses to miss his soap opera, the vice-president hosts the party. An invading band of terrorists, who planned to kidnap the president, find themselves instead with dozens of hostages on their hands. They free the less important men and all the women except Roxane. As the remaining hostages and their captors settle in, Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s multilingual translator, becomes the group’s communication link, Roxane and her music its unifying heart. Patchett weaves individual histories of the hostages and the not-so-terrifying terrorists within a tapestry of their present life together. The most minor character breathes with life. Each page is dense with incident, the smallest details magnified by the drama of the situation and by the intensity confinement always creates. The outside world recedes as time seems to stop; the boundaries between captive and captor blur. In pellucid prose, Patchett grapples with issues of complexity and moral ambiguity that arise as confinement becomes not only a way of life but also for some, both hostage and hostage-taker, a life preferable to their previous existence. Readers may intellectually reject the author’s willingness to embrace the terrorists’ humanity, but only the hardest heart will not succumb. Conventional romantic love also flowers, between Gen and Carmen, a beguilingly innocent terrorist, between Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane. Even more compelling are the protective, almost familial affections that arise, the small acts of kindness in what is, inevitably, a tragedy.