Steven Galloway’s latest novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo (Knopf Canada), turned my expectation of historical fiction on its side. Normally I’m a glutton for historical novels; I love their ability to dress in a former time and place, reopen past conflicts and re-examine the people who have influenced us. Galloway’s novel, though, is not really an investigation into a time and place. Instead, he uses the Siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s to investigate his theme—the tenacity of hope when everything else is threatened. The novel was inspired by the real cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović, who honoured twenty-two people killed by a bomb while queuing for bread by playing Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio for twenty-two consecutive days in the bomb’s crater. Around this symbol of perseverance, Galloway lays the paths of three fictional characters trying to survive and find meaning amidst the destruction of the city. Dragan must cross a street that is in the sights of a hidden sniper. Kennan, a family man, risks his life darting from the bombed-out library to the brewery to fill his bottles with fresh water. Arrow, a reluctant sniper, has orders to protect the cellist from an assassin who has infiltrated the city. The words Serb and Bosnian are never mentioned; neither is the larger world of the Bosnian War or the breakup of Yugoslavia. Galloway has re-created the Siege of Sarajevo at its most distilled, an approach that allows him great mobility in ordering an exciting plot and insightful themes. But the narrator is frustratingly withdrawn. Personal emotions and dramatic moments are cooled with matter-of-fact explanations, and I found it difficult to feel the personalities of the characters and sometimes even to tell them apart. Vedran Smailović, the cellist (who now lives in Northern Ireland), has criticized Galloway for appropriating his story. Only a few pages of the book feature “the cellist” and don't seem to me to infringe on Smailović’s privacy beyond what has already been published in high-circulation newspapers. But the cover image of the Canadian edition, a photograph of Smailović playing outside the blown-up Sarajevo Opera House, makes too strong a claim on real life.