The cello, with its wonderfully rich and mellow tones, has to be one of my favourite instruments, so I was immediately drawn to this book. For a long time, though, I resisted reading it, fearing that war-torn Sarajevo would be a harrowing and morbid subject. Instead the book provided a riveting insight into the daily struggles of ordinary people caught up in a situation over which they have no control.
I hadn't realised until I read the author's Afterword that the idea for the story, itself entirely fictional, came from a true-life situation. A cellist sits at the same spot in a bombed street at the same time every day for 22 days and plays Albinoni's haunting Adagio in honour of the 22 people killed there by mortar shells while waiting to buy bread. It's a dangerous memorial - the cellist is, literally, a sitting target for snipers.
The book isn't about the cellist himself, though. It's about the inspiration and hope his music conveys to people caught up in a daily struggle to live and stay alive, as well as the tragic waste that inevitably comes with war. In many ways, this is less a novel, more a snapshot of the lives of three individuals during those 22 days. As they watch their beloved city crumble around them, services we take for granted like electricity and running water become so unreliable as to exist only in the memory, and obtaining food and fresh water becomes a matter of life and death.
Throughout the book the novelist concentrates on Kenan's efforts to carry sufficient water to last a week, both for his family and for an irascible old woman who lives downstairs and to whom he feels an obligation even though he doesn't like her. In the case of Dragan, an older man who managed to get his wife and son to Italy before the siege began, the author details his efforts to reach the bakery where he has worked for forty years. He counts himself lucky to have a job in a city where so many are unemployed, and although not paid in cash, which is virtually worthless, he receives his wages in the form of bread to take home. Lastly there is Arrow, an outstanding counter-sniper tasked with keeping the cellist alive, and in many ways her story is the most compelling.
A little of the past lives of the characters is revealed through occasional flashbacks, as they mourn the lives they used to live, when the city was `normal' and before the siege became the new normality.
For some, the book may seem fragmented as it switches from one character to the next but I didn't find it so. The book is well written, and the use of the present tense conveys a sense of immediacy, of being there with the characters, a part of their stories. To say I enjoyed reading it sounds inappropriate for such a subject, but I couldn't think of another verb that was any better. I could certainly have gone on reading about these people for much longer, which must be the ultimate test of a good read.