by Elizabeth Kostova
Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine
Pub Date 11 Apr 2017
Courtesy of Netgalley
The Shadow Land is a mystery, a thriller and a love story but not a traditional love story. It is a love for a land, it’s people and it’s history. Beginning The Shadow Land I knew a little bit about Bulgaria, thanks to Ms. Kostova’s 2005 book The Historian. But I knew nothing about it’s mid twentieth century history. I did not know there was a King who allied his country to Hitler and left them to suffer one brutal dictatorship and ideology after another. Kostova brings this history to life through the people who lived it and the people who struggled to rebuild.
Alexandra is a woman in her mid-twenties who has been marked by tragedy over ten years before. Her brother disappeared the day after his sixteenth birthday on a family hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains. His body was never found. Alexandra had been close to him until shortly before his disappearance. Looking back she tries to find a reason, was he depressed, was it an accident but all she finds are more reasons to blame herself. She travels to Bulgaria, a country her brother dreamt about seeing, to teach and to try to move on.
The taxi from the airport deposits her at a main point in the city of Sofia. Alexandra is in the process of getting another taxi to her hostel, a low cost living arrangement until the school year begins and she receives a salary, when a good deed does indeed get punished. Trying to help an elderly couple and their son into another taxi, she accidently ends up with one of their bags mixed with hers. As her taxi begins to drive her away, she realizes the mistakes. The other family is gone and the bag Alexandra has contains someone’s ashes in an elaborately carved urn.
Alexandra’’s taxi driver, who she calls Bobby, offers to help her return the ashes. What follows is an odyssey, that covers the length and breadth of Bulgaria and it’s history. As Kostova did in the Historian, the story is split into different time periods and narrators. The voice of the dead man whose ashes are now in Alexandra’s possession are told in his journal. Other people speak for him, to tell his story and how it is so entwined with the history of Bulgaria.
The books is at it’s best when it takes these magical side trips into the murky past. A blind woman over one hundred years old tells of when the Ottoman’s were finally driven from Bulgaria. The dead man’s sister-in-law tells of a serious suitor who quietly wins the family over with his courtesy and obvious adoration for Vera, his future wife. The survivor of a inhuman prison camp where the inmates do not know their crimes. The author saved a wonderful surprise for the last quarter of the book. It made me love the characters all the more.