SARAH Quigley sets her latest novel in wartime Leningrad, where Dmitri Shostakovich, inspired by the city’s epic resistance to Nazis, is composing his Seventh Symphony.
After the composer and the Philharmonic Orchestra are evacuated when the siege worsens, second-rate conductor Karl Eliasberg and a makeshift ensemble are engaged in their own battle to keep his music alive.
Their mission is to perform the Shostakovich’s new work – which he completed in December 1941 – in a broadcast to the Soviet frontlines. But food rations are low, and the musicians soon struggle to even attend rehearsals, let alone perform the composer’s longest symphony.
Quigley uses fiction to bring to life the Leningrad Radio Orchestra’s most tortuous of all performances. She is particularly good at portraying the process of composition and the rigorous determination Eliasberg displays in rallying players to perform in face of impossible odds.
While Shostakovich comes across as oblivious to the plight of his fellow citizens, the musicians who rehearse his symphony are ill, injured and weak with hunger and always liable to be enlisted.
Eliasberg, a failed musician and ageing bachelor who has no hope of love or success, is at first presented sympathetically before being shown as pathetically pining for friendship with the exuberant Shostakovich and for the respect of his superiors.
The core problem with Quigley’s novel is one of context. As the Nazi bombs fall, the families of the besieged are torn apart, and they are reduced to eating boiled shoe leather just to survive another appalling winter’s day, it is hard to believe that the performance of Shostakovich’s symphony matters.
Quigley’s whole point in writing the novel must surely have been to insist that it does, and never more so than in such desperate circumstances. Sadly, it doesn’t work: rather than the roaring symphony that this tale deserves to be, it reads more like a half-hearted hymn.
Head of Zeus, £12.99
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