Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Sarajevo is a city under siege. On 27th May 1992, twenty two people are killed by a mortar shell as they wait outside to buy bread. In memory of those who died, a cellist sits in the street on twenty two consecutive afternoons and plays Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello.

The cellist, however, is not the main character in this book – although he is there in the background throughout the story, playing his music as a message of hope and inspiration. Instead, Galloway has chosen to focus on three different characters, who are each coping in their different ways with the changes war has brought to their lives.

One of these is Arrow, a young woman who was once the star of the university target shooting team. Now she’s been recruited as an army counter-sniper and given the responsibility of protecting the cellist from attack. Then there’s Kenan, a man in his forties for whom the simple task of going to collect water for his family means putting his life in danger. And finally there’s Dragan, an older man who sent his wife and son out of Sarajevo before the siege began, and is now slowly making his way across the war-torn city to the bakery where he works.

I was only 11 years old when the Bosnian War started so probably wasn’t paying a lot of attention to news reports about it – I’m ashamed to admit that I know very little about what happened and before I read this book was only vaguely aware that Sarajevo had been under siege. However, if you’re looking for a book that will teach you the facts about the war, you’ll need to look elsewhere as this book does very little to educate the reader about the war itself. We are never even told the nationality of any of the characters. The snipers surrounding the city are referred to as simply ‘the men on the hill’; those defending Sarajevo are ‘the men in the city’.

This vagueness was very effective because in a way, Steven Galloway was saying that it doesn’t matter who’s fighting who, it doesn’t matter why a war began, because people everywhere are the same, have the same feelings and emotions, and are similarly affected by the pain and suffering of war. The author could have taken any war or any siege as the basis for this book and the overall mood he created would have been the same.

I can’t say that I enjoyed this book because ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word. Neither is ‘loved’. But it was an incredibly powerful book and I’m glad I finally found time to read it. I think some readers would probably dislike the structure of the book with its alternating chapters from the viewpoints of each of the three characters, but it worked for me. Arrow’s storyline was the most compelling and could have been a whole book on its own, but I also found it interesting to follow Dragan and Kenan as they dodged the snipers and negotiated hazardous bridges and ruined buildings on their dangerous journeys through the city.

The Cellist of Sarajevo doesn’t tell us how the war started, the reasons for the war or even who the war was between. What it does attempt to tell us is the effects the war had on individual people, how they felt and how they tried to survive.

Highly Recommended

12 thoughts on “Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

  1. amymckie says:

    Great review. I love that you point out how it isn’t about who is fighting who or why, but rather the effects it has on the ordinary people. I think by not giving nationalities or any information it makes it easier to focus on the people rather than the event, did you find that too?

    • Helen says:

      Yes, definitely! At first I was confused by the lack of information but then I realised it didn’t really matter – it was the feelings and emotions of the characters that were important.

  2. bookssnob says:

    This sounds interesting, and I like its neutral stance towards those involved in fighting. I don’t know a huge lot about the Bosnian war, either – I remember news reports when I was about 10 or 11, but it isn’t something I ever really registered. I’d like to know more. Great review!

    • Helen says:

      It mustn’t have registered with me either. I was a bit disappointed that the book didn’t give more details about the actual war – as I mentioned in my review, Galloway could really have been writing about any war in any country – but it did mean I could concentrate more on the characters and their personal stories.

  3. Amanda says:

    I felt much the same way you did when I read this two years ago. Very quickly, though, the book faded from my mind, despite it feeling so powerful then. Now, I barely remember it, which is a shame.

  4. Helen says:

    It’s a shame when that happens. Some books do seem to be more memorable than others, regardless of how good or bad we thought they were at the time.

  5. Ash says:

    Sounds like a great book! I generally like to learn something about the subject from a book but since you thought the lack of knowledge worked well as a literary device maybe I’d enoy more than I think.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it was a great book. I think you’d probably enjoy it. I like to come away from a book feeling that I’ve learned something too – and although I didn’t learn much about the Bosnian war itself, I did learn how people’s lives were affected by it.

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