Fantastic Fairy Tale – and like the best of them, rich and instructive
Patchett’s story starts realistically enough, sadly, – a situation where the powerless, or those who believe they are powerless, feel they have to resort to violence or the threat of violence as the only way to get their demands listened to, or acted on.
So we have a siege in a South American Vice-Presidential house, carried out by a group of disaffected utopian visionaries. This is a scenario which has been played out endlessly in the real world – but Patchett takes it into quite different territory and produces a world which almost becomes idyllic, where love, communication, companionship, friendship, peace, hope and creativity blossom between captors and captives alike – and in surprising and inventive ways.
People whose lives are unbelievably different, in terms of language, culture, needs and expectations find individual common ground. There’s a theme of ‘finding a common language’ which unites humanity and creates the possibility of love – in its many and varied forms, sexual, parental/child, spiritual, deep friendship, respect, running through the novel. This need to find a common language is both overt – of the 4 central characters, one is a translator who speaks a multiplicity of languages, and who drives the plot, and all relationships, as he is the means by which people who don’t speak the same language can get to listen to and respond to each other. It is also covert – the opera singer who is the other main drawspring and focus for everyone’s real inner need to ‘connect’ – the power of a method of communication which doesn’t use verbal language – music, great art, and its ability to unlock the heart. Chess, abstract and intellectual, becomes another language creating respect and love. Language and learning is seen as a tool for transcendence, so is simple tender service, preparing a meal, ‘being a host’. It is a magical, magical book.
However, despite my enchanted seduction by this book, I fell out of love at the ending This was a very difficult tightrope to walk, and I don’t think it quite worked. I don’t want to give away plot, but inevitably, how does a writer end a book where you have been induced to find both ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ understandable and to feel tenderness for them, care about them. Either everyone lives ‘happily ever after’ (too Hollywood, too trite, too sweet and sickly) or ‘the just’ all triumph and ‘the unjust’ all get their comeuppance (or, the nihilistic twentieth century version, the ‘the bad’ win and ‘the good’ are wasted) Or you find some way to balance winners and losers – in which case, there must always be some you wanted to win who will lose, or vice versa.
After a book which is so ‘feelgood’ in progression, you can’t have an all dark ending, but there has to be an element of possible realism, so the fairy tale ending won’t work either. How she achieves her ending, ties together the knots and creates the emotional message she wants us to be left with, doesn’t really work for me. Nor do I really have a clue as to what the best ending would have been, but I don’t think this is it.
However, I have no hesitation in thoroughly recommending a book which gripped and enchanted, for 311 of its 318 pages