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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

Creating Beauty Amidst Terrible Privation

The Conductor - Sarah Quigley

Set during the siege of Leningrad, Quigley's powerful and enthralling novel focuses on the character of Karl Eliasberg, the conductor who managed to assemble an audience of half-starved musicians from the city's desperate inhabitants and coax from them a performance of Shostakovich's newly-composed seventh symphony. This performance, broadcast on loudspeakers to defenders and assailants alike, would come to stand for the resilience of the Leningrad people under the most extreme privation.

Eliasberg is a man tortured by lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Yet in in the pursuit of a task so utterly demanding that there is scarcely time for him to drag his mother's corpse to the frozen cemetery, and no time at all to tell his friends and colleagues of her death, he manages to find a redemptive strength and purpose.

All the characters in this novel are powerfully drawn - they are, after all, individuals under the most extreme stress, inhabiting the very margins of existence; and behind them lurks the overwhelming personality of Leningrad, a city where bombs and artillery fall like rain and where the melting snow of Spring reveals dead bodies that have been partly cannabalised by the starving inhabitants.

Despite its often cerebral concerns, this novel manages to be a real page turner. I was scarcely able to think about anything else until I reached the end.