The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway


It seems a good moment to be reminded of those who retain their integrity even in the worst of times. Like Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, this novel is based on a true story of courage and honor during the siege of Sarajevo.

Galloway’s novel is based on the actions of Vedran Smailović, a former cellist in the Sarajevo String Quartet, who during the siege played among the ruins, especially the Albinoni piece, and at funerals, even though funerals were often targeted by snipers. Unsurprisingly, Smailović was furious that his life and story had been co-opted by someone else without his permission, calling it an invasion of his privacy. He also said,

“I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day.

“They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at 10 in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine.

“I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello.”

Galloway, on his part, defends his actions by saying in the same article that Smailović’s actions had been “an extremely public act” and that a writer need not get permission from his sources of inspiration. Apparently they have since begun to move towards reconciliation, but I still am concerned about defining the grey area between a private person and a public figure.

In Galloway’s story, on 27 May 1992 an unnamed cellist sees a mortar bomb explode in the square outside his room, killing 22 people who had been standing in line for bread. He decides to put on his formal clothes, go out to the spot where the bomb exploded at 4:00 pm and play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, a piece composed around a fragment found after the bombing of the Dresden Music Library in 1942. He will do this every day for 22 days, if he survives that long.

The rest of the story revolves around three fictional characters, ordinary citizens whose lives have been derailed and distorted by the war. Arrow is a young woman who reluctantly became a sniper for the city’s defenders because of her previous experience on her university target-shooting team. To separate herself from that person who would never have used a rifle to kill, she has taken a different name. Yet she still struggles to align her actions with the remnants of her belief system. “The Sarajevo she fought for was one where you didn’t have to hate a person because of what there were . . . You could hate a person for what they did.” What could be more timely?

Dragan was able to send his wife and son out of the city before the siege and now lives with his sister and her family. He is trying to get to the bakery where he works, even though it is his day off, to eat in the employee cafeteria—one less burden for his sister. Dragan imagines Sarajevo as it was before the war, the parks, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Olympic venues from 1984. He is delayed by the people he encounters and the terrifying hesitation at street corners. Crossing a street means exposing yourself, and Dragan falls into magical thinking about what might save him. This is a choice I see people resisting today: to hide in memory or indulge in magical thinking. Only by facing reality can we address it.

Another person out on the streets is Keenan who must travel across the city to get water for his family and for his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Ristovski, even though he is almost paralysed by the thought of venturing out into the sights of the snipers in the hills. As he makes agonising decisions about which bridges to cross and whether to abandon Mrs. Ristovski’s cumbersome bottles, he becomes aware of tankers of water servicing the rich, those who are making money off the beleaguered residents. Keenan must find a way to live with his fear of death and decide whether it is worth going on.

Nothing is more relevant to today’s fears than this chilling reminder from late in the book. Although Galloway is referring to Sarajevo, he could be talking about any of several nations in the throes of change today.

. . . civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible.

What novel have you read recently that has given you new insight about current events?

The Lord of the Rushie River, by Cicely Mary Barker


When in need of comfort, I often turn to beloved books. In a recent article on the great writer’s website Writer Unboxed, author Juliet Marillier described some of her favorite and most treasured books, her keeper books. This picture book was the very first one she named. It is by the author of the Flower Fairy books, which I have long adored.

This story opens with Susan’s father, the Sailor, bidding her goodbye as he heads to sea again. In her sadness, she is comforted by a family of swans swimming nearby, one of whom, as a cygnet, had been rescued by her father when some boys had broken its leg.

Dame Dinnage, hired by her father to care for Susan in his absence, immediately drops her pretense of loving Susan, feeding her scraps and watered milk, refusing to mend or replace her clothes. All Dame Dinnage cares about is her stocking of money that grows heavier and heavier. Then she moves them to the city.

In her despair at never seeing her father again, Susan runs away, trying to make her way back to Rushiebanks. She is rescued by a swan, the one her father saved, now grown large and strong, and lives with the swans until he returns.

I’ve given away the ending, but you knew it would end happily. The delight is in the details and in the drawings by the author, some in color. Barker perfectly captures the timeless voice of a young girl. Here is a short passage from Susan’s flight from the city:

It was still the dark night; but in one house a dim light burned in an upstairs window. It gave her a feeling of company; it might be the night-light of a little girl like herself. She crept into a corner of the creeper-covered porch, and rested there.

I was lucky to find a used copy of this lovely book and will treasure it and share it with the young people in my life. I’m grateful to Juliet Marillier for introducing me to it.

One of the benefits of the Writer Unboxed site is that people leave comments on every post. I culled more ideas from other people’s comments on Juliet’s post. Here are the keeper books that I posted in my comment:


The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton. As a child I didn’t realise that this tale of magic and danger was based on aspects of Transcendentalist philosophy. I simply loved it, and the images in it are still touchstones for me.


The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett inspired a lifelong love of gardening and Yorkshire. I walked the Dales Way this summer.


The Scent of Water, by Elizabeth Goudge. I first read this as a teen and, on re-encountering it later, realised how much it had influenced my personal philosophy, my beliefs, and my view of the world and relationships.


Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Innocence, quests, and honor: this book took my childhood love of King Arthur stories into adulthood.


The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. One rarely mentioned aspect of these books is their maps and songs and barely remembered histories, which gave me a love of scholarship that has carried me through formal schooling and beyond.

Birds of Paradise, by Paul Scott. This early novel by the author of the Raj Quartet resonated so deeply with me that I come back to it again and again. A coming of age story, it makes me consider the unreliability of childhood memory and the place of Arthurian honor and glory in today’s world.

What are some of your keeper books?

The Door, by Magda Szabó


I have been thinking a lot about doors this week, what doors are closing, what doors are opening. It is a time of great change for me personally, for my country, for the world.

Szabó’s brilliant novel opens with a recurring nightmare of desperately trying to force a door open; there is someone inside who needs saving. Yet she cannot even call for help; she has no voice.

The narrator of this first-person story is a Hungarian writer, also named Magda. She and her husband, also a writer, have no children, indeed no family, for Magda’s mother has recently died. After 10 years, the government has finally lifted its restrictions on Magda’s writing and, overwhelmed with opportunities, Magda decides to hire a housekeeper. Thus, Emerence enters their lives.

A sturdy older woman, Emerence takes control of the interview, announcing that she will decide whether to work for them, rather than the other way around. With great physical strength and an unrivalled understanding of how the world works, she performs herculean tasks to maintain the apartment building where she lives, clearing the snow for 11 buildings, providing meals for the sick, finding homes for stray animals, and the many other duties she has assumed.

Emerence is proud of her role as the bulwark of the neighborhood. She is the one they turn to with their problems, holding court on her front porch with strong tea or coffee. However, no one is allowed inside her apartment, which Magda calls the Forbidden City. This is only one of many mysteries about this remarkable woman. Did she steal the valuables Jewish neighbors had to leave behind when they were rounded up during the war? Did she kill a man and bury him in the back yard? Who is the young woman whose arrival she anxiously awaits?

Magda and Emerence frequently clash, more and more violently as they grow closer. Emerence has a laborer’s contempt for the idea that tapping on a typewriter could be considered work. She disapproves of Magda’s faith and criticises her when she attends church services. In her turn, Magda dismisses many of Emerence’s gifts as not being up to her standards and resents the way Emerence has appropriated the love and obedience of Magda’s dog.

Miscommunications and misunderstandings plague the relationship. In one hilarious scene, Magda takes Emerence to where a film is being shot, thinking to give her a treat. Upon learning that there are machines making the tree branches dance during a passionate love scene, Magda is disgusted and accuses Magda and the other filmmakers of being liars and cheats. Magda asks her, “‘Don’t you think it’s a function of art to create the illusion of reality?’” Emerence’s response changes how Magda understands her own art.

“Art . . . If that’s what you were—artists—then everything would be real, even the dance, because you would know how to make the leaves move to your words, not to a wind machine or whatever it was.”

Neither woman is spared in this brutal, yet subtle work. Every page reveals Szabó’s profound understanding of human behavior and motivations. I am grateful for the work of translators like Len Rix and publishers like New York Review Books for enabling me to read novels from other countries such as this one.

The book works on many levels. Some have seen it as old Hungary versus new Hungary or peasant versus educated elite. Perhaps it traces the difference between art and physical labor. In the end, though, it is a story about how difficult it is to love someone, and how necessary.

Have you read a book translated from another language? What did you think of it?

A Cup of Tea, by Amy Ephron


I once read a novel where a man enters a room and the woman there, who has never seen him before, just says, “Yes.” And she goes with him, even though she is married and has two children. I was at a susceptible age, young and a bit cynical, and wondered how that could even be possible, to recognise someone in that first moment.

I found out later that it was indeed possible, though I couldn’t explain how. Perhaps it was the circumstances; perhaps the way he looked or the sound of his voice, the peculiar scent of his skin. I don’t know.

Such a moment occurs in this slim novel, based on a short story by the same name by Katherine Mansfield. On a shopping expedition in New York City, wealthy Rosemary Fell sees a young woman standing under a streetlight in the cold rain. Moved by a surprising impulse of generosity, she invites the destitute woman home with her for a cup of tea.

Navigating the concerns of her driver, her housekeeper and her best friend, Jane, Rosemary presents the girl with a dry change of clothes. Before she has decided how far to go in befriending the girl, Rosemary’s fiancé arrives. Philip immediately notices the strange girl who is studying him. After being introduced, he takes Rosemary to another room to find out what is going on. Although unconvinced by his lecture on the unwisdom of bringing home strange girls, Rosemary does return and sends the girl—Eleanor Smith—away.

It’s 1917 and many of society’s mores are changing. The U.S. will soon enter the Great War, sending men overseas and disrupting lives even as comfortable as Rosemary’s. The story follows these four characters, Eleanor, Rosemary, Philip and their friend Jane.

While it seems like a simple story, the complexity of the characters and the intensity of the times give it depth. Rosemary is no empty-headed debutante, and Jane’s motives only gradually take shape. Although of a good family, Philip has had to build his shipyard business from scratch. And Eleanor is a bit of a mystery. A woman who has reinvented herself, perhaps more than once, she moves through the months, taking shape herself along with the story.

People sometimes argue the difference between character-driven novels and those that are plot-driven. To me, the best novels are like this one, where plot and character are fully integrated. Things happen; people change; larger themes of class and materialism lurk around the edges: I couldn’t ask for anything more. And the setup, a moment of just saying yes, was entirely believable to me.

What story have you read that resonated with your own experience?