Wednesday, August 12, 2009

REVIEW: The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway


The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway. Published 2008 by Riverhead. Literary fiction.

I may the be the only person on the face of the Earth, but I didn't really like The Cellist of Sarajevo.

Oh yes, it is a very moving literary novel of a city under siege, set during the Balkan War when the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was being shelled at its citizens shot at by Serb forces during a bitter, uncompromising, senseless war. The siege lasted from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996, the longest in modern history. Galloway writes sensitive portraits of ordinary people under extreme situations, an environment in which going for fresh water becomes a gamble with life itself, when at any moment bullets can rain from the sky and kill an innocent person. And it's beautifully written.

But it's all just too easy, you know, writing poetic anti-war fiction about innocent people under trying circumstances. There's nothing to grab on to. Or almost nothing. The narrative goes back and forth between four characters- Dragan and Kenan, two nearly-indistinguishable ordinary men, a nameless cellist determined to play for an hour every day and a sniper named Arrow, determined to protect him. The cellist and Arrow are based on real people, and Arrow is the only thing that kept me reading. Complex and full of contradictions, both breathlessly ruthless and breathlessly human, she is a fascinating fictional creation. Every moment with her is loaded with razor-sharp suspense and relentless forward motion. I wish the whole book had been about her.

The thing is, there's nothing really wrong with the book and I know many readers have loved it. For me, do-gooder liberal fiction with its simplistic no-kidding morality is just boring. It's easy to read- it does nothing to challenge the reader or make the reader stretch or think. It merely evokes pity and a pleasant, comfortable sense of righteous outrage. Which is why I enjoyed Arrow so much- she's no innocent, and it's not so easy to like her yet Galloway manages the neat trick of making us care about her despite the fact that she too is a bloodless killer. As it is, The Cellist of Sarajevo is a perfectly fine, well-written book, a quick read that most people will like more than I did.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

18 comments:

Rebecca :) said...

I have this one on my TBR list. I have heard lots of good things but there was one other review I read somewhere back months ago where they had the same reaction as you did. I wonder what my own will be.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I so agree with your statement: "do-gooder liberal fiction with its simplistic no-kidding morality is just boring." I have found it to be the same for do-gooder liberal non-fiction. Far better if you have some creativity to go along with the message.

bermudaonion said...

I've got this book waiting to be read - your review will give me something to think about as I read it.

Diane said...

Great review; i liked this one, but was glad it was a library copy as well.

Meghan said...

I also read this recently, but I was glad I got it from the library and didn't buy it. I appreciated its message, but you're right that some of the characters are indistinguishable and much of it feels like it's been done before. The cellist and Arrow were what kept me reading and made this into an intriguing and thoughtful read.

Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

Ms. Bookish said...

You're so right - it takes more than beautiful writing to make a good book. I loved your description of Arrow.

Blodeuedd said...

I liked it, I liked the language, but thought it was a bit short and something missing. Still one of the best reads so far this year

Serena said...

I've had this on my tbr list for sometime. I haven't read it yet, but I've always thought the premise to be interesting.

Not sure how I would react to it given your reaction.

Zibilee said...

Sorry that you didn't really like this one. I had the chance to review it, but passed on it because it just didn't seem like the right story for me. I have read several good reviews, but there is something in me that still resists. Call it a hunch, but I probably would have felt much as you did after reading it.

Hazra said...

I know how you feel. There are books everybody has raved about except me, and I feel like the only person alive who didn't like the book.
However, I think I want to read this book. Anti-war fiction is seriously missing from my reading history

claire said...

I felt a little like you with this book, although I appreciate it and like it somewhat, I just don't think it's worth the money to buy and keep either. I've read another similar-war-torn-scenario book this year which is a million times better (DeNiro's Game by Rawi Hage), which I absolutely recommend, but not for the squeamish as it is very graphic and might be offensive to some.

Nikola said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nikola said...

I live in Serbia, so I would definitely want to read this. Thanks for the heads up! :)

An Anonymous Child said...

I haven't read the book but I feel that your point about "how easy" it is to write this type of book (not specifically this book) is important. I can see how a book like this might be good, technically - all the screws and bolts are there - but might lack something. I am nonetheless intrigued by the idea of this book and may someday choose to read it. But I will certainly keep your well-put points in mind.

Anna said...

You're right...there are tons of glowing reviews of this book. I'm glad to have read your take because it gives me something to think about, as I hope to read this one at some point.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Kelly said...

Great review! When I've read about this book, I always suspected I'd feel the same way as you did. So, I've been studiously ignoring it when I go book shopping. Thanks for validating my position a bit!!

S. Krishna said...

Oh no! I'm sorry you didn't like this one. I'm still going to read it, but might temper my expectations a bit.

Bill Metcalfe said...

The problem is the gap between the stunning premise-- cellist who decides to play in the middle of a war-- and the execution of it, which is a bit pedestrian in the way you have described. The powerful and original premise made me expect more.