Monday, December 29, 2008

Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expanded in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as they were. Then the visible world exploded. [First Paragraph]

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
Riverheard Books, 2008 (ARC)
Fiction; 235 pgs

Whenever I begin a new book, I write down the title and basic identifying information in my note taking reading journal (not to be confused with my formal reading journal which is where I keep all of my reviews). This is one of those books that inspired me to start jotting down notes even before I began reading the first page.

I did not know about Vedran Smailović before beginning The Cellist of Sarajevo. I had no idea that there really was a man who sat in the middle of a square during the recent war in Sarajevo playing his cello for twenty-two days, mourning the loss of the twenty-two people who died in that very square due to a mortar attack. It was that very incident that inspired author Steven Galloway to wonder and then write about such a man. Or, at least, how such a man might have impacted those around him. While all the characters in the novel are fictional, the author hoped to capture the truth of the flavor of war, the struggles and suffering as well as the endurance and kindness that could be found amidst the ruins and dangerous streets as bullets and bombs found their marks.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is not so much the story of the cellist himself, but of three individuals who were doing what they could to survive in their beloved and war-torn city. They each are struggling to survive as best they can and have suffered much loss since the start of the war. They long for better days, and yet hope is often fleeting.

There is Arrow, a young woman whose future changed irrevocably the day the war began. A former university student who is skilled in the sport of marksmanship finds herself in a position she never could have imagined herself in. Her skill is a great commodity during the war and Arrow struggles to hold onto her humanity at a time when hatred and survival are stronger forces. Arrow’s story was the story I found myself most drawn to. I cannot imagine what life would be like for someone in her situation, forced into a position where killing becomes second nature. She had led such a normal life, with everyday dreams and hopes, only to have it all taken away and shattered by war. Arrow found a way to rationalize her actions, but at what cost to herself?

Kenan, once a clerical assistant, struggles to survive and support his wife and three children. Without electricity and water, they have to make due as best they can. Every four days or so, Kenan makes the dangerous journey to the brewery for clean water. He dodges sniper fire and mortars. The route he chooses to get to the brewery could mean life or death. He must always be careful, always alert. He is consumed by fear and doubt. He worries about his family, wishes life were back the way it once was.

Then there is Dragan, a 64-year-old man who works in a bakery. He is one of the few still employed in the city. He had sent his wife and son away before the start of the war and has not heard from them in months. He hopes they are safe and away from the danger. Dragan has cut himself off from his past, those he used to know, choosing instead to isolate himself as much as he can socially. A chance meeting on the street as he waits to cross an intersection that is being targeted by a sniper reminds him of what he has lost.

Through each of these character’s stories, the author illustrates the hardships and desperation of war. There is greed and corruption that make some rich and fat while others, like our main characters, starve and live in poverty, barely able to make it through each day. The random shootings and bombings could end anyone’s life at any moment. Death and injury have become a way of life. Fear hangs in the air and festers. And yet, even in all of that, there is a glimmer of hope. People reach out to each other, sometimes in the most simplest of ways. Even in war, the kindness and generosity of men and women are not completely lost. Their strength and hearts are what will pull them through and help them survive.

The fictional cellist in the novel brought his own brand of hope to the people of Sarajevo. However indirectly, he changed the lives of many who heard him play, including the lives of Kenan, Dragan and Arrow. Steven Galloway’s novel is both poetic and haunting. His prose is simple and raw. The Cellist of Sarajevo is not a novel I will soon forget.

Rating: * (Very Good +)

Thanks to Riverhead Books for providing me with a copy of this book.


  1. I'm all over this book!! I feel like such a stalker for saying this but again I absolutely love your reviews!! I'm not sure that I would've picked this book up just based on the cover but after reading your words I can feel it calling to me!!! I'm going to add it to my Winter Challenge list!!

  2. Fantastic review! I thought this was an amazing book, too. My review is here:

  3. This book sounds great!!! I've never heard of it until now, so thanks for such a thorough, thoughtful review, Wendy!!!

  4. Wendy, the second and third to last sentences of your review really hooked me. This one has been on my wish list for a while but you've sealed the deal for me!


  5. Thanks for the great review, Wendy! I've never heard of this book so I'll keep a look out for it. :)

  6. I love reading your blog so much! You always make me curious about books that I rarely would even glance twice at.

  7. Staci - Haha! Thank you! I understand there is another cover to this book as well, although it's causing some controversy and maybe that's why my book has this newer one. I do hope you like this one!

    Sarah - Thanks! And thank you for the link to your review. I add it to my own later today. I was so anxious to put up the review that I haven't had a chance to add in the review links yet.

    Andi - Thank you! It really is good. I think you'd like it, Andi. :-)

    Shana - It is definitely worth reading. I'm so glad I took a chance on it. I hope you enjoy it!

    Melody - I hope you are able to find a copy. It's such a good book.

    Diane - Thank you! I'm kicking myself for waiting so long to read it.

    Jen - Thank you, Jen! If you do give this one a try, I'd love to know what you think.

  8. What a great review. Your description of the book reminds me a bit of the book Guernica by Dave Boling - another war story. I'm going to see if my local library has The Cellist of Sarajevo.

  9. I've heard a lot of good things about this book and your review made me want to read it even more. Great review!

  10. I loved this book! I considered it one of my favourite books of the year. :)

  11. This sounds like something I definitely want to read! Just the names of the characters has me hooked!

    An excellent review!

  12. This sounds like a book that would be a good choice for a book club discussion. Having read it, do you agree? Is there a lot to discuss?

    Wonderful review, Wendy. I'm going to add it to my list!

  13. Reading your review reminded me of the movie IP MAN (a memoir about the Wing Chun grandmaster) during the times when China was invaded by the Japanese. War is always so devastating and innocent people suffer because of it. The hardship and desolation are unbearable to behold.

  14. Wow! What a wonderful review! This sounds like an awesome book. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  15. Myckyee - Thank you! I am really looking forward to reading Dave Boling's book. I've heard such great things about it.

    Samantha - Thanks! It wasn't quite what I expected, but that was okay because it turned out to be just as good as I hoped. :-)

    Kelly - It's definitely one of my favorites of the year. :-)

    Linda - Thanks! I hope you will enjoy it if you read it.

    Les - Thank you! The Cellist of Sarajevo would make a good book club selection. It's not a very long book, but there is a lot to it worth discussing.

    Alice - War hurts the civilians in ways that I don't think those making the decisions fully comprehend or take into account sometimes.

    Anna - Thank you! It really is a touching book.

  16. I've heard such good things about this one. Thanks for a great review--I'm adding it to the list!

  17. Jenclair - Thank you! I hope you will enjoy it!

  18. I read this book a few months ago. It really is an enjoyable and thoughtful read. :)


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