The Cellist of Sarajevo – Book Review

cellistofsarajevo.jpg “Why do you suppose he’s there? Is he playing for the people who died? Or is he playing for the people who haven’t? What does he hope to accomplish?” -From The Cellist of Sarajevo-

The Siege of Sarajevo began April 5, 1992 and lasted almost four years. Approximately 10,000 people were killed, and 56,000 wounded – most were civilians. Embedded in these numbers are thousands of personal stories. One of those stories includes Vedran Smailovic, a musician who witnessed 22 of his friends and neighbors killed by a mortar shell while they were waiting to buy bread in May 1992. In response to this horrific event, Smailovic sat in the square where his friends had died and played his cello for 22 days – one day for each life. This small, but significant human response to the war touched Steven Galloway – a Canadian writer who had never been to Sarajevo, but who began to think about hate and the essential ingredients of humanity. The result is The Cellist of Sarajevo – a profoundly moving and universal novel about what it means to be human in the face of atrocity.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is the story of four regular people and their response to war and hate. The cellist is the character who unites the story threads. His music is the backdrop to the core stories which Galloway tells in taut, yet simple prose. Dragan is living with his sister and her family – he has managed to send his wife and son away from Sarajevo to safety and he often thinks about what it would be like to leave Sarajevo and join them. In the meantime, he avoids old friends and focuses on his survival – trying to cross an intersection where a sniper waits. Kenan  lives with his wife and two small children. He has avoided engaging in the conflict and every four days must go to get water for his family and elderly neighbor – a woman who is unkind, cold, and selfish. Arrow is a young woman who will not acknowledge her real name – the name that represents who she was before the war. She now works as a sniper for the forces within the city. Before the end of the novel, all three will have to decide whether or not they will allow the war to make decisions for them and steal their humanity, or if instead they will reach out to another person and do what is right, even if it means they will not survive.

I was moved to tears at the end of this short novel. Galloway writes exquisitely. He shows the reader the simple lives of his characters and defines the essence of what it means to be human. The novel makes the reader wonder what he or she would do faced with similar circumstances. It asks the big questions. As Galloway points out in his short introduction:

The themes and characters exist wherever ordinary people find themselves caught in war. Sarajevo could be Lebanon or Chechnya or Iraq or a half-dozen other places.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is required reading. Beautifully crafted and heavy with truth, it is one I can highly recommend. Rated 5/5.

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    • Lezlie on April 11, 2008 at 09:31

    This book sounds wonderful! I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.


    • Jill on April 11, 2008 at 09:37

    You did a remarkable job summarizing this book. I am glad you enjoyed it too. Like you, I think this one will be in my top five list of 2008.

    =) Jill

    • Wendy on April 11, 2008 at 09:59

    Lezlie: I believe this book is slated to be released mid-May. I know you can pre-order through Amazon and Powells. If you only read one book in 2008, this should be the one!

    Jill: Thanks 🙂

  1. If only one book?! Okay, you convinced me! I’ll check it out.

    • Wendy on April 11, 2008 at 19:27

    Oh good, Natasha 🙂 Let me know how much you love it!

  2. My library has it on order and I already put it on hold. I don’t mess around!

    • Wendy on April 12, 2008 at 08:25

    Natasha: You go girl!*laughs*

    • Alisia on April 12, 2008 at 12:09

    This sounds like a great read! If you want a non-fic take on the topic, you should check out ‘Escape from Sarajevo’, by Cristobel Mattingly.

    • Trish on April 13, 2008 at 18:13

    Thanks Wendy–I’m putting it on my wishlist.

    • Wendy on April 14, 2008 at 08:25

    Alisia: Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll check it out.

    Trish: You’re welcome – I love to enable other readers to just keep buying more great books *smiles*

    • Teddy on April 17, 2008 at 14:19

    Beautiful review Wendy! I added it to my TBR.

    • Wendy on April 18, 2008 at 08:25

    Teddy: I am still thinking of this book…I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

    • Ben on August 12, 2008 at 07:10

    Wonderful telling of people’s thoughts and behaviors of a people under siege. What would we do? One error in your description. The background of Kenan and Dragan should be reversed.

    • Wendy on August 12, 2008 at 07:14

    Ben: I hope I never have to know what I would do! Thanks for the correction 🙂 I fixed it…silly mistake!

    • Marcelle Nagy on November 29, 2008 at 17:47

    I was deeply touched by this book.Three years ago I was in Sarajevo and could not believe the devastation that was inflicted on this beautiful city.Two years later,my new neighbours who were from Sarajevo told me stories that made my hair stand on end.Reading the book made me realize that there is suffering beyond belief even today.How long will it take to be human?Sometimes there isn’t more we can do other than treat others with kindness on a daily basis.As for my neighbours?There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do to make their chosen country as peaceful and truly human as possible.

    • Wendy on November 30, 2008 at 11:07

    Marcelle: Thanks for weighing in on this book – it is so sad to see the suffering that war has brought throughout the world – I have often wondered if we all just followed the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) what an amazing and peaceful world we would have.

  3. I love this book and I love the fact the real-life cellist has expressed his irritation at the publication of the book – throwing open the debate as to the ‘rights’ of a muse. Great review. You can read mine at

    • Wendy on March 7, 2009 at 11:16

    Vicki: Thanks for stopping by – I enjoyed your review!

    • Kerri on April 22, 2009 at 19:11

    Not sure if you’re interested, but we’ve got a reading group discussion on the book. Feel free to drop by.

    • Wendy on April 26, 2009 at 08:03

    Kerri: Thank you for the invitation to join in with your reading group discussion – unfortunately I am feeling pretty overwhelmed with life right now (new puppy, work has picked up and I’m getting ready to go back east to visit family in two weeks), so I will not be able to participate. But, it is a wonderful book – I think you’ll have a good discussion!

    • David on June 9, 2011 at 16:11

    Great summary, but i was hoping for some character analysis for the character Arrow, and how her resolution ends in the book.

    • Wendy on June 9, 2011 at 16:20

    David: I never give spoilers in my reviews…and to tell how Arrow resolved her conflict would, in my opinion, spoil the book for readers…this is why I did not go into more character analysis. I hope that my reviews spark interest in the book, giving just enough to let readers know if this is a book they would want to read…I tell why I liked (or disliked) the book. My style is not to do in-depth analysis.

    • jackie Taylor on November 1, 2011 at 03:27

    I too have read this amazing book. I thought how different things would have been if the people controlling the tunnel had been caring and openhearted and instead of using it to get rich they could have evacuated most of the people from the city. How naive am I? It would have been a very differnet outcome.

    • Wendy on November 8, 2011 at 14:04

    Jackie: Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts – those “what ifs” are interesting to explore, aren’t they?

    • Maria on December 18, 2011 at 23:41

    I am deeply touched by the book and by the story. I am a music teacher and I just finished a concert, where my students played “Christmas in Sarajevo”- a piece inspired by the same story. Your book review helped me a lot as I was researching to prepare my lesson plans on it. Thank you!

  4. I have only read the first few pages of this book. I have met the “Real” Cellist of Sarajevo, indeed he stayed in my house just after escaping Sarajevo in 1993. All I can say is that I am disgusted that Vedran has been treated in this way. Why make him into a fictional character when he is larger than life and his true story would make just as good reading. This book, as far as Vedran is concerned, is one big lie and quite despicable. Any fiction about the horrific war in the Balkans is totally unnecessary when the facts should be written about and aired to the world for fair minded people to be made aware of how awful the situation was and is in that part of the world. I have met many Sarajevans and know more of their history than is comfortable. I don’t need fiction to wake me up to the facts.

    • Wendy on May 5, 2012 at 18:41

    Thanks for stopping by, Helen. I do have to disagree with you, however – good fiction can illuminate events and educate people as to some of the horrible things that have happened in our world. I do not think this book treats the real cellist badly at all. Fiction is not fact…and readers who read historical fiction know this. If you are more comfortable reading nonfiction, that is great…but it is not the case for all readers. The fact that many people know nothing of what happened in Sarajevo makes this book even more valuable, in my opinion. It doesn’t lessen the horror…in fact, for me, it was a very emotional read. I guess I am just not really understanding your anger…

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