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Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway

In besieged Sarajevo, a cellist, gazing out his window, sees more than 20 people die from a bomb while waiting for bread.  In mourning for them, he decided to play at that exact spot for 22 days, to honor all of the dead, putting his life at risk.  Meanwhile, Kenan ventures out most days, embracing danger to get water for his family and inexplicably the neighbor, an old woman whom he has never liked.  Dragan feels a burden on his family, his wife and son sent away before the war, and finds some comfort in his job at the bakery.  Arrow, a sniper, is determined to wreak revenge on the people in the hills who are killing so many of her townspeople.  Together, these characters weave a picture of a city under siege, somehow seeking hope but not yet hopeless.

My favorite character, to whom I wished the narrative would keep returning, was Arrow.  She is the most interesting of all of them, a killer, but somehow one that we can love and empathize with even as she chooses her targets and plans her strategy.  She’s a murderer who has blocked off her heart somehow, drawing a direct line between the girl she was and the sniper that she is now.  I can’t imagine not feeling for her. The other characters were less compelling, especially Dragan, who seemed obsessed with a variety of things and complained too much.  The cellist didn’t have much of a personality.  Kenan was also a compelling character and I enjoyed the discoveries he made and the thoughts he had over the course of the novel.

Perhaps the only problem I had with it is that I liked it while I was reading it, but now that it’s been a while since I finished, its core meanings have not stayed with me particularly well.  War is wrong and savage, and it’s lovely that the cellist brought hope into its midst, but I have read other books about Sarajevo and I’m not sure this stands out as much as perhaps it should.  I enjoyed its ruminations on survival while people are out to kill you, how the city holds together as one being, and Arrow’s protection of the cellist, but I’m not left with a desire to reread this one, perhaps because I just never developed a deep relationship with the characters.

I am glad I read it and I would recommend The Cellist of Sarajevo, particularly if you enjoy bleak stories about war with a light shining through the darkness.

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8 comments to Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway

  • I enjoyed reading this, but wished the stories had all come together at the end – it felt a bit fragmented. Perhaps that is why the characters aren’t staying with you.

  • As weird as it may sound, I do like bleak stories with a light shining through the darkness. I’m not sure what that says about me. I do have this book and hope to get to it eventually.

  • I enjoyed this one when I read it a while back.

  • Great review! I have read other reviews of this book that mention the same thing about Arrow. Most of them seemed to wish that there had been more exploration into her character and felt that she was really the star of the book. I may give this book a closer look, as it looks like an interesting read. Thanks!

  • I loved it because of it’s beauty, horror and reality. But as with books I really love, I seldom read them again. Cos I can’t find that first sense of beauty again

  • I definitely want to read this one. Thanks for the review.

  • Arrow was my favorite character as well. I really liked this novel when I read it and parts of it have stayed with me–more the feelings it brought up rather than the individual stories themselves.

  • Hmmm, I wouldn’t say I *enjoy* bleak stories, but I certainly appreciate them, if they’re written well. This sounds like it has a lot of the elements that I’m drawn to. Interesting to read what all the other commenters have to say about their favorite characters.