Steven Galloway – ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’ review

‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’ is an expertly composed piece of fiction. Published in 2008, Steven Galloway explores themes of war, civilization and humanity, in this sublime stand-alone novel.

During this tale, we discover wartime Sarajevo as seen by four fictional characters. There’s a cellist who plays at a bombing site in honour of his fellow citizens of the city, a man trying to obtain some water for his family, an older man trying to cross a road and get some bread, and a sniper for the Sarajevo Defense Corps. With each of these enthralling characters, we see the pain and struggles of everyday life at this time, with the constant threat of death looming like tall shadows. The four perspectives are beautifully intertwined throughout, each one providing us with a great emotional voyage through tough times.

Personally, I found that this was a fascinating read, as all four of the main characters added something fresh and unique, and here the credit must go to the craftsmanship of Galloway. Arrow was the character I felt to be the most intriguing, as she changed her name to this in order to separate her killing, soldier-self from the innocent Alisa she was before. Her account is tense and invigorating at times, while demonstrating the conflict of character we may all have in a situation like this. The cellist himself represents the humanity that still exists in the city, as his sacred music holds nothing but good spirit, and is almost the heartbeat of the city at this point. Both Kenan and Dragan’s stories are captivating respectively, and I would say that they are perfectly placed to highlight the more ordinary people that are so sickeningly traumatized by such events; nonetheless, it’s a gripping journey. I think that it’s well written throughout, as I found that I could envision clearly the paths they each walked down, and the altering perspectives always keeps a novel vivacious and spontaneous, providing a more exciting read. It’s difficult not to sympathise with the characters depicted here, and the nature of their lives make it a natural flowing read. The features of this novel are taken from events that took place over three years in Sarajevo, so the fact that it’s all quashed into one month is, of course, not factual because that would be impossible. It is a fictional tale, which we must bear in mind when reading it, but as long as you’re not picky about the realisticness of a novel, then this is a stunning tribute to life in the Bosnian war. The raw exploit of civilization and humanity is enough to grip you firmly. 

Naturally, after having enjoyed this book wholeheartedly, I would strongly recommend this to anyone looking for some captivating literary skill that will move you along the way. It’s easy to read, very entertaining and extremely well crafted, so I would think that it shouldn’t disappoint. If you have a strong passion for war and battle, and the realities of that, then a more journalistic piece may be better for you, however in terms of literary war pieces, this is superb.


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