The Cellist of Sarajevo is set during the real-life Siege of Sarajevo which lasted from 1992 to 1996. Galloway presents the different perspectives of those most affected and how they manage under constant threat from "the men on the hills." Interestingly, it could be any city affected by war and the avoidance of categorizing ethnic or religious groups allows for a more powerful message with which everyone can identify. Even some of the "men on the hills" cannot help but appreciate the music. Galloway sums up what every person knows about war:
"There are no heroes, no villains, no cowards... There's right and wrong and nothing else."
The cellist, a symbol of hope, becomes the catalyst or mechanism through which the reader is introduced and tracks the lives of Arrow, the young female sniper who used to hate no-one and won't kill just for the sake of it but because it saves lives, Kenan for whom fetching water for his family is a life-threatening event and Dragan who isn't "built for war" and yet he must cross the street and risk being killed. It is the cellist's music that defines the cellist himself and the reader understands his character through his music.
The larger drama often associated with "war stories" is purposefully omitted in order to participate in the daily struggle of the people who are just surviving. The cellist who is most disturbed by the deaths of 22 people after an attack and undertakes to play his cello, unprotected, in defiance of the danger, chooses not to let the situation get the better of him. Dragan is wrapped up in his own desperation as he contemplates that "no one is coming" and he can't even remember "how civilized people act." He is struck by Emina, his wife's friend, who is not as afraid as him and, in a moment of bravery, he does the right thing.
Kenan is bitter as he watches others profit from "trapped and starving people" and also because his efforts to fetch water are not appreciated by Mrs Ristovski, his neighbor. This allows him to focus more on these feelings and Mrs Ristovski's containers that have no handles rather than on the actual reality of not knowing if he will even make it home. He feels like a coward as others help people in need but focuses on his own tasks. The cellist's music has a huge effect on him and momentarily, he feels relieved and revels in his memories of a better time. His resolve is strengthened and he refuses to be "a ghost while you're still alive."
Arrow, unexpectedly moved by the music and its ability to show a "capacity for goodness," and at great risk to her own safety, watches over the cellist even as corruption threatens the city. She knows that if she does not, she will lose an essential part of herself.
Galloway then presents these fundamentally different characters as people with a common goal, all attempting to rise above the horrors of their daily existence in a war-zone, doing what they can, some more significantly than others but all with a valuable contribution to make. They are all tempted to abandon their hopes for the future and must overcome enormous odds in order not to compromise their hope of happiness.