Book Review: The Conductor

By Nicky Pellegrino

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The Conductor by Sarah Quigley
Vintage, $39.99

Book cover of The Conductor by Sarah Quigley. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Conductor by Sarah Quigley. Photo / Supplied

For the magic of a novel two things are required: beautiful writing and brilliant storytelling. Too often authors manage one but not the other. Sarah Quigley has proved herself gifted at both. A novel from her is a relatively rare thing. This is her fourth - she hasn't published one since 2004, according to the Book Council website. But The Conductor was worth waiting for.

It's an extraordinary book set during the siege of Leningrad and weaves fact with fiction. Quigley follows three men: celebrated composer Dmitri Shostakovich, orchestral conductor Karl Eliasberg and a fictional musician Nikolai Nikolayev.

Central to the plot is Shostakovich's struggle to compose his Seventh Symphony as his orchestra is sent to Siberia, his family starves and the city he loves is destroyed by war. From the selfishness of the creative process to the domestic trivia of his life and his war work as a fire-watcher, this is a convincing portrayal of a man who was the most famous composer in Russia at the time. But the story equally belongs to Eliasberg, the conductor who lifted the spirits of his fellow citizens by bringing the completed symphony to the people of Leningrad with the help of the few members of his orchestra who hadn't starved to death or been killed in battle.

Quigley paints him as repressed, awkward and ultimately heroic.

These are two driven, exacting men but the third character, the good-humoured Nikolai, grieving for the daughter who has disappeared, adds a more ordinary humanness to the mix.

Reading The Conductor, I felt utterly transported to a place and a time - Leningrad in the grip of winter and the brutal siege that saw its citizens stripped of hope and dignity, eating boiled shoe leather to survive, the life slowly being crushed out of them. It's powerful material that might have been misused by a more heavy-handed writer but Quigley has a lightness and clarity both in the way she uses words and story. She deserves to be mentioned alongside writers like Jane Smiley, Andrea Levy and Rose Tremain, who strive for literary honesty rather than pretension.

As a bonus, tucked into the back cover there is a recording of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, so you can experience the powerful music he composed as Nazi troops closed around his beloved Leningrad.

- NZ Herald

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