The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

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The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A novel that remained at number one in the New Zealand best seller list for 20 weeks, this is a fascinating, fictionalisation of one of the more gruesome chapters in world history. Sarah Quigley hasn't pulled punches, but in the process has also written a beautiful story of love, hope and indomitability.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2012
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1908800022

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Composer Dmitri Shostakovich can block anything out whilst he's writing music: his wife Nina's voice, his children arguing, even the side effects of living in Stalinist Leningrad. However, life is about to become more than an annoying distraction from music as Germany declares war on Russia and gradually initiates what history will come to know as the Siege of Leningrad. Shostakovich then realises, just as gradually, that his music may serve a purpose to sustain his compatriots in the absence of sufficient food and hope. His Seventh Symphony becomes a protest against oppression, but he needs an orchestra to play it and the top musicians have been evacuated to save the country's cultural heritage. He therefore turns to Karl Eliasberg, the aspiring but third rate conductor of a cobbled together orchestra. Music can create miracles but, for Eliasberg and his musicians, being able to play it will be the biggest miracle of all.

When a book arrives with the hype of The Conductor excitement mingles with wariness. An award winning author, over 4 months as a country's top novel... there has to be a downside? Not in this case; Kiwi born Sarah Quigley has written a scorcher.

She vividly communicates the sight and feel of Leningrad as it slowly disintegrates from vibrant cultural community to virtual death camp as it's cut off from all supplies. The city's occupants also realise but daren't vocalise their realisation that Nazi Germany isn't their only enemy as Stalin's version of mother Russia is fonder of grand statements and demanding loyalty than exhibiting humanity. For it's not just about the mother country, the characters also develop (and demise) as the conditions worsen.

Shostakovich, a grumpy tunnel-visioned genius wrapped up in his creativity becomes frustrated when he realises the extent of his family's suffering for the first time. He may be cantankerous, but he also has the capacity to love and care deeply. He's not easy to live with, testified to by his wife Nina who has a wonderful rant about the difference between the perceived genius and the unaware family man, but we're in no doubt we're in the presence of a rounded person, a testimony to the writing.

Karl Eliasberg wants to be accepted but the level of his self-esteem is way below that of his talent. He idolises Shostakovich and his desperate attempts to be noticed are sympathetically puppy-like. Sarah Quigley has engendered so much empathy here, that the reader inwardly cheers as hardship brings out the best in him and he finds resources that didn't seem to be there a hundred pages earlier. There are also the musicians, notably Nikolai, trying to go on under a great weight of guilt and then a greater weight of sadness. (Yes, indeed, I cried.) The list of colourful characters that populate Ms Quigley's Leningrad just go on and on, each becoming animated beyond the page.

For anyone unsure of the fictionalised versus the factual, the author kindly sets out her stall for perusal and reference in notes at the back. For instance, for the sake of the novel Sarah Quigley has linked the Seventh Symphony with the siege itself. Some historians suggest that the symphony is anti-totalitarian and therefore equally aimed at the Russians. That's also hinted at in the novel; therefore she ensures that all bases are covered.

Don't get the wrong idea though; The Conductor isn't depressing. Yes, there's sadness and grim sights and moments of fear, but there's also strength, community, the survival of the spirit and the most uplifting moments. There is also laughter as Sarah Quigley ambushes the reader with absurdity and some great Russianesque laugh out loud humour, often in the midst of pathos. In fact of the reviews I read, I could only find one piece of criticism: someone didn't approve of the way that a cello was put down. Personally, when it comes to a novel this good that reinforces pride in humanity, I can live with a casually discarded cello.

I would like to thank Head of Zeus for providing Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this and would to read something just as touching and compelling, try The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.

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Buy The Conductor by Sarah Quigley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Conductor by Sarah Quigley at


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