May 14, 2017

The Shadow Land - Elizabeth Kostova

Ballantine Books, April 11, 2017.


Four Stars


Kostova has an incredible talent for evoking remote locations – specifically the small corners of Eastern Europe – in a way that makes the reader feel as if we can touch, taste and smell everything she is describing. Her earlier novel, The Historian, is one of my very favourites, and once again she has inspired me to travel to the breathtaking locations that her characters are lucky enough to explore.


In The Shadow Land, a young American woman named Alexandra has just arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria to start a new job teaching English. Alexandra had an unconventional childhood in which her parents lived mostly off the grid, and hiking through the nearby Blue Mountain trails was their main activity on the weekends. On one such hike, her teenage brother Jack disappeared from the trail, never to be seen again. Alexandra has travelled far from home partly to escape this childhood trauma, but also because Sofia was a city that Jack had longed to visit.


As she is leaving the hotel shortly after her arrival in Sofia, Alexandra stops to assist an elderly couple into a taxi and mistakenly ends up with one of their bags. Inside is an ornately carved box with the name “Stoyan Lazarov” – and inside that are human ashes. Alexandra is appalled to have ended up with such a personal item, and instructs her own taxi driver to follow the couple, but they are soon lost in the busy city streets. The driver, Bobby, agrees to help Alexandra find them, and the two follow a series of clues that lead them through Sofia and across the Bulgarian countryside. Bobby seems friendly, but he has his own dark secrets, including an unnamed threat that follows him around the country.


Along the way, Bobby and Alexandra learn the story of the dead man, Stoyan Lazarov. They meet with his friends and family, and discover that he was a talented musician who studied Vivaldi in Austria – but when he returned to Bulgaria after WWII, he was labelled as an enemy of the Communist state and sent to a prison labour camp. Stoyan’s story illustrates the oppression, fear and violence that come from a totalitarian regime, and the shocking effects that continued for years afterward. These are just a few of the atrocities of the 20th century, as people turned on each other in order to survive.


This novel feels like a great story (Stoyan’s) tangled up inside a mediocre one (Alexandra and Bobby’s madcap caper across the countryside). Stoyan’s story was heartbreaking and real, while the contemporary plot line is uneven, improbable and never quite believable. There were also a few loose ends that were built up and never resolved. I would consider this to be a literary beach read, where the serious is mixed with the silly. There are elements of suspense, but they are really secondary to character-building and the historical setting. While there is quite a lot going on in the plot, it somehow moves at a slow, meandering pace.


Most of all, I enjoyed the setting, and Kostova’s ability to showcase the beauty of the Bulgarian landscape and architecture – she highlights the small details that come together to form a sense of place. Through Stoyan – and to a lesser extent, Alexandra – there is an exploration of the inherent goodness of people vs. our capacity for evil. And while there is always fear in political oppression, we can see here that there is also room for hope, especially in the creation of art and music.


I received this book from Ballantine Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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