Author Steven Galloway's novel The Cellist of Sarajevo packs a lot of emotion into its slim 256 pages as we follow the sometimes-intertwined stories of four characters trapped during the devastating Siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s. Much has been written and reported about the large-scale atrocities committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia; this novel brings the vast human tragedy down to a much more accessible scale.
The story begins with the unnamed cellist of the title determining to play for 22 days in the exact spot where a Bosnian Serb mortar killed 22 civilians as they waited in line to buy bread. In using this episode, Galloway begins his narrative with a basis in fact: in 1992, cellist Vedran Smajlović did this very thing for 22 days. But this is not a story about Smajlović; the cellist plays a relatively small role given his prominent place as the title character.
This novel is rather the story of the other three main characters. In alternating chapters we follow the harrowing daily struggles of Arrow, a young female sniper serving with city's defenders; Kenan, a man who must make regular (and dangerous) hours-long treks across the ravaged city to get water for his family and a cranky elderly neighbor; and Dragan, a 64-year-old baker who, after sending his wife and son to safety before the siege began now uses his access to bread to convince his sister to allow him to continue living in her house.
As they navigate through this perilous existence, each copes in very different ways. The young woman has taken "Arrow" as her new name and identity in the hopes that when the war is over she may be able to return to the person she was before it started. Kenan, fantasizes about the Sarajevo of his youth throughout his journey across the city, while wondering if it ever existed the way he remembers it. And Dragan has simply isolated himself from everyone and everything he knew, ignoring even friends as much as possible. Ultimately, however, each has a change of perspective and attitude, each one impacted by the man playing his cello every day at 4:00 p.m.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is a beautifully written novel that can at times become so filled with tension you have to stop reading for a moment. For many people it will be their first in-depth exposure to a vicious war of ethnic hatred on the European continent that raged for 4 years while the rest of the world looked away. It is also a story of survival and even redemption in a place where neither seems possible. It is a book you will continue to think about long after the final page.