Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review of The Cellist of Sarajevo

Set during the Siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s, The Cellist of Sarajevo follows three individuals over a period of about three weeks as they try to live their lives in the chaos that is war. Although it is a novel, the story used the factual story of a reknowned cellist who sat amongst the rubble of shelled buildings day after day playing at the site of a massacre of innocent people waiting to buy bread.

The story follows Arrow, Kenan, and Dragan, all strangers whose paths do not cross throughout the book. Arrow is a sniper who has been tasked with protecting the cellist from enemy fire. Kenan is a family man who is responsible for making the trek across the city to get water for his family. And Dragan is a baker whose family has left the city for safety in Italy. They all have their respective 'targets' as the story progresses: Arrow is targeting the sniper who has been sent by the enemy to assassinate the cellist; Kenan is targeting the brewery where he will be able to find fresh water; and Dragan is targeting the bakery where he hopes to buy some fresh bread.

I found this book to be quite contrived. I did not believe in any of the characters because Galloway never let us get to know them. Perhaps this was intentional -- how well can you know someone who is living through the insanity of war? -- but it resulted in the characters not feeling fully formed (which in several instances became confusing and I often found myself confusing Dragan's and Kenan's storylines). I also did not like Galloway's writing style -- every sentence seemed overly crafted, as though each word was intentionally placed after the next, making several parts of the book feel affected and, as I said earlier, contrived. Which is too bad, because I think the concept for the novel was unique and could have been the basis of a much better story had it been written somewhat more skillfully.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review of The Ghost Road

The Ghost Road is the third and final book in Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy. It is set during the closing months of World War I, and centers around Dr. William Rivers, a psychologist treating mentally and physically injured patients from the front.

Unlike Regeneration where the story focused on Dr. Rivers as he treated patients, The Ghost Road picks up where The Eye in the Door left off. Billy Prior, one of Dr. River's more interesting patients is heading back to the front despite his asthma and potential for split personalities in highly stressful situations. Rivers continues to treat patients returning from the war with shell shock and psychological trauma back in England. However, the story also consists of several flashbacks to River's time as a missionary doctor in Melanesia.

As the final book in the trilogy (and winner of the Booker Prize), I had high hopes for The Ghost Road. Unfortunately, it didn't compare to the other two books. I found the flashbacks to River's time in Melanesia distracting from the arc of the storyline following the war and Prior's return to the front. This was the first time in the series when the reader is actually taken to the war itself as we follow Prior to France and experience the battles through him. Although the horrors of the war are terrifying to read about, it's as though, as a reader, the time has come to experience it alongside him -- having read two entire books describing the horrors through the psychological havoc it has inflicted on the men fighting, the reader is ready to "see" what could have created such damage. Although difficult to read about, the parts of the book that took place in France were the most riveting.

My guess is that Barker won the Booker prize for this third book as a nod to the trilogy itself (similar to Peter Jackson's Oscar win for 'The Return of the King', even though it was nowhere near the best film of the three). It's worth the read to bring Rivers' and Prior's stories to a close, just don't expect it to be the best one.