Book Review By Ann Patchett HarperCollins/Perennial; $13.95 "The soul of another is wrapped in darkness," Chekov said - yet his stories revealed the human soul in all its complexity. All good fiction does this. Its great gift is to allow us to live inside another"s skin: to feel the tug of a character"s past, to hear his inner voice directing him, to grieve or celebrate the mixture of chance and fate that shapes his path.

Ann Patchett"s Bel Canto begins with wild applause for Roxane Coss, the world-renowned soprano who has come to a little Latin American country to sing at the birthday party given in honor of a wealthy Japanese businessman. Suddenly, the lights go off and terrorists with guns and knives burst onto the scene. They have come for the president, they announce - but the president is at home, having cancelled at the last moment to watch a soap opera. So they take the whole party hostage, setting in motion a series of events that are in turn brutal, magical, hilarious, absurd and heartbreakingly sad. It is a fable, really: the story of what could happen if time stopped and people began to forget who they were in the real world beyond the wall that confines them. An accountant becomes an accompanist; the vice president, a housewife; a diplomat, a cook. Teen-age terrorists curl up on the sofa, guns at the ready, watching TV. The general plays chess with the wealthy businessman. The soprano serves her guard tea in a china cup, washes the girl"s hair with lemon shampoo. There"s love, of course. Impossible love, the best kind. And beautiful music. Every morning Roxane Coss sings and her voice makes a family of them all. I know. It sounds Ö sappy. But it"s not. In fact, I can"t remember the last time I read a book that stayed with me as Bel Canto has, or made me think more about the way the world is and how it ought to be. "Read this book!" I say, when the subject of Sept. 11 comes up. Because it is so important to remember that hostage, terrorist, you, me - each of us has a rich, complex, surprising, secret soul. Chekov was right: that soul is unknowable. But Bel Canto gives the reader a kind of map for imagining the souls, the inner lives of real people - those we know and those we"ll never know but whose actions affect our lives profoundly.

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