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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 and it is marvellously read by Sean Barrett. I was scarcely able to think about anything else until I reached the end.
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Would you listen to The Conductor again? Why?
Yes. I don't normally but because this is so well written and contains a great deal of historical fact I will probably go back to it. Not only for the brilliance of the writing but to remind myself of aspects of this history. Sarah Quigley's portrayal of all her characters was brilliant. Her prose is exquisite. Descriptive, realistic, sparing nothing of the horrors of war but depicting the strength of human spirit. Flashes of humour made me laugh out loud from time to time.
Who was your favorite character and why?
The characters were so well portrayed that I had sympathy and empathy for them all. Despite their faults.
What about Sean Barrett’s performance did you like?
Sean Barrett always manages to narrate exceptionally well and I thought he managed these Russian characters well.
Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
The book was appalling and brilliant at the same time. I cannot pick out one individual item from the horror or the siege to moments of tenderness - I couldn't put it down.
Any additional comments?
I am sorry to say that I never knew that there was a siege of Leningrad. I have researched it now and can't believe I never knew of such a monumental event of human hardship, tragedy and survival. Ironic that I read this as the siege in Aleppo reached a climax.