Sunday, April 14, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Quite some time ago, this review of The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, posted by Sam at Tiny Library, convinced me that this was a book I had to read. I didn’t want to put it on my mental TBR list and forget about it, so I bought the book. Unfortunately, it then became one of the books on the stack. But, thanks to Roof Beam Reader’s 2013 challenge, I plucked it off the TBR pile.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is set during the Siege of Sarajevo. It takes as a loose focal point a true historical incident. On May 27, 1992, at 4:00, mortar shells sent into a bread line exploded, killing twenty-two civilians and wounding many more. Although incidents like this were commonplace during the siege--along with random sniper fire that meant a person was taking his life in his hands every time he ventured out into the streets--this shelling had a particular significance for one man, the principal cellist for the now defunct Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra. The cellist lived in a building adjacent to the market. For next twenty-two days, he emerged from his apartment at 4:00 to sit in the crater where the shells had fallen. There he played Albinoni’s Adagio in memory of the twenty-two victims. (The inspiration for the character of the cellist is Vedran Smailovic, a famed cellist in Sarajevo, although the author takes some liberties with the timing of the event and has fictionalized the cellist.)

While the cellist is playing, the book primarily follows the lives of three people who live in the city under siege. First, there is Arrow. This young woman is an exceptionally skilled sniper. She not only has a talent for hitting her target, but also a gift of intuition. She is aware of her surroundings in a way that keeps her alert to danger. She can anticipate the moves of her enemy. Arrow is an asset to the besieged as a countersniper in every sense but one–this far, she has refused to blindly follow orders. She cannot bear to sink to the level of the "people on the hills" who kill indiscriminately. And yet, with increasing pain and numbness, she feels her real self, her humanity, slipping away. In her dual role as sniper/defender of the city, Arrow sees more corruption and less humanity wherever she looks, and she is beginning to believe the fight is already lost. She fears there is no longer a difference between them and us.

The second character is Kenan, a youngish husband, father, and reluctant good neighbor to an embittered elderly woman. Keenan has escaped conscription into the army and his life revolves around a series of harrowing hours-long journeys to the local brewery, the sole remaining source for potable water. He carts as many plastic jugs as he can carry strung around his neck while hoping to dodge snipers as he makes his way through the most dangerous streets of the city. And back again. Every four days. He lives in dread of that fourth day.

Finally, there is Dragan. This older man managed to send his wife and son to safety in Italy before the siege. Dragan didn’t leave for reasons people don’t leave. Now, he wishes he had, and yet, he still believes he couldn’t leave his home. Dragan is fortunate to have a job in a bakery which exempts him from the regular army and means he doesn’t have to wait in bread lines. But he does have to walk to and from work every day. And so, every day, he faces the possibility of random death–in fact, he sees people shot at and sometimes killed, crossing the streets he must cross. How, in the face of this, do people find the courage to go on?

In beautiful written, haunting chapters, Galloway shows how different characters do find that courage, each in their own way. And it shows how each of them draws strength in a different way from the cellist’s courageous gift of music and hope.


  1. Ah, I'm glad that you enjoyed this one, Susan, it's still one of my favourites. Which point of view did you like the best?

    1. I thought Arrow's was the most poignant. I guess I was relieved by her ultimate choice, as horrible as it was. Which was yours?

  2. I'm glad to see you enjoyed it! Our book club recently did our next round of picks, and this is one of the books we chose. Can't wait to read it now.

  3. I definitely want to read this! Thanks for such a great review!