The title of this book is misleading. Though The Cellist of Sarajevo opens with the cellist witnessing a horrific event, we don’t hear from the cellist again until briefly at the end. The bulk of the story is told from the POV of Dragan the baker, Kenan the father, and Arrow the female sniper during the military occupation of Sarajevo in the 1990s.
Sarajevo is devastated. The war with “the men in the hills” has wrecked the city physically and economically. The Sarajevo wasteland is populated with the poor souls who didn’t make it out in time and soldiers. The soldiers fight openly in the streets. Both citizens and soldiers must be on guard against shells and snipers.
The cellist’s story begins the book. From his window he sees 22 people, who are in line to buy bread, blown to bits by mortar attack. Horrified, he does the only thing he knows how to honor these people and to protest their murders: he plays Adagio in G Minor every day at 4pm for 22 days. One song for each person.
The cellist is based on the real-life musician from Bosnia named Vedran Smailovic. He regularly played his cello in abandoned buildings or at funerals during the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s.
Dragan is one of the few people who still has a job in Sarajevo. His path to work is always perilous but on this particular day, he sees a woman he knows get shot and doesn’t help her (The Bystander Effect).
Kenan goes on a water run for his family and his neighbor. Getting to the brewery (which has the only clean water around) is dangerous enough but once he reaches it, he finds himself in the middle of a shelling, seeing things that he could never have imagined.
The way time passes in The Cellist is odd. Dragan and Kenan’s stories happen over the course of one day and touch on the little horrors of everyday during a war. Whereas Arrow’s story happens over a month or so and is much bigger.
Arrow is assigned to protect the cellist during his 22 day performance. She’s a sniper for the “good guys.” She adopts the name Arrow when she joins the army, shedding her old skin and becoming a weapon. She mourns the person she was before the war, before she realized she was pretty godd*mned talented at sniping people. She hates and loves the person she’s become and she lives by some whacked personal rules about killing folks.
I could take or leave Kenan and Dragon’s characters, but the cellist and Arrow were fascinating. There wasn’t enough of the cellist’s point of view! And Arrow has such a deep inner conflict and mysterious past that I couldn’t get enough of her. I also thought her decision in her last chapter was strangely out of character and was upset with the ending.
I would have given this book 4 or 5 stars if Steven Galloway cut out the two dudes and focused on the cellist and Arrow. They perfectly oppose one another: the beautifully mournful cellist and the tough mysterious sniper–both wanting the same thing and trying to achieve it in different ways.
Hey, Steven Galloway, let me be your editor !