Review of ‘The cellist of Sarajevo’ by Steven Galloway

This is not a novel that I would have picked up if I hadn’t been asked to review it. I found both the brown blah cover and the title entirely uninviting, and the blurb did little to persuade me otherwise. It turns out though that this is a surprisingly engaging book. Once I began reading I was sucked in and mounting tensions kept me eagerly turning pages to find out more.


The story is fiction inspired by fact. The real cellist of Sarajevo is (according to Wiki) Vedran Smailović known as the “Cellist of Sarajevo”, a musician from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He played in the Sarajevo Opera, the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, The Symphony Orchestra ,TV Sarajevo, and The National Theatre of Sarajevo.

After the start of the war in Bosnia, Vedran Smailović, just like hundreds of thousands of other residents who endured the Siege of Sarajevo, survived the cold, food and water shortages, the constantbombings and sniper fire in the street.

In 1992, Smailović played his cello for 22 days to honour the 22 people who had been killed while queuing for bread. This act caught the imagination of people around the world. Composer David Wilde wrote a piece for cello called “The Cellist of Sarajevo” in his honour which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma. Smailović was also known for playing for free at different funerals despite the alleged history of targeting of funerals by Bosnian Serb forces.

He managed to leave the besieged city in late 1993, and since then has been involved in numerous music projects, as a performer, composer and conductor. Smailović now lives in Northern Ireland.

It’s an incredible story, but it is told without overblown histrionics. The cellist plays not knowing that an unseen female sniper, Arrow, has been assigned to keep him from harm. She watches from a window, scanning the scene for the sniper she knows will be there. Kenan is a man on his way to fetch water, and we join him on his tense journey. Dragan ensured his wife and son escaped to safety, but he remains, working in a bakery, missing them.

The author writes in a cool, somewhat detached, tone, and yet as a reader I became engaged with the three main characters. There are some original observations about how people under constant threat change (so many women have grey hair now that dye is unavailable), and there is much food for thought in the ethical concerns that Arrow explores. The end feel perhaps inevitable, but nonetheless this is an effective and moving book.

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