Disclaimer: An advance copy of this book was provided to me via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Elizabeth Kostova, best known for The Historian, returns to Eastern Europe in her latest novel. Where The Historian dealt as much in myth as in history–tracing the legend of Dracula out of history to discover his modern-day existence–The Shadow Land sticks to a story that is all too real.
Alexandra, a young American, arrives in Bulgaria for an English teaching job, driven by the memory of her dead brother who had picked Bulgaria as his favorite country on their family’s map. In a movie-worthy set-up, she ends up at the wrong hotel and with another family’s bag mixed in with her own. To her horror, she finds that the bag contains a funeral urn, and she has no idea who the family is or where they might be.
Lucky for her, she steps into the exact right cab. Her driver, Bobby, speaks English, is honest and is willing to go out of his way to help get the urn back to its owner. Especially when it becomes clear that someone else is looking for the urn too. Someone powerful, and not very nice.
As they follow the leads that they can discover, they gradually piece together the history of the musician, Stoyan Lazarov, whose remains are in the urn, from World War II and the closing of Bulgaria’s borders through the Cold War era, when Stoyan was one of the many Bulgarian citizens imprisoned by their own government and was put to work in a brutal labor camp.
Stoyan’s story is compelling, and Bobby and Alexandra’s journey and the people they meet equally so. Unfortunately, Alexandra herself seems to be the real weak point in the story. Her backstory only has the most tenuous connection to the events of the story itself and serves more as a distraction than an enhancement. You keep waiting for her brother’s death to mean something in terms of the larger story, but in the end it feels like it was created only for the sake of allowing her to come to the table with a tragedy, so that she and the Bulgarian characters can relate to each other. I think, in the end, too much time was given to that part of her story in proportion to the amount of impact it actually had on the overall plot.
Similarly, her “romance” is also a weak point. It was entirely unnecessary, and really added nothing to the story except for allowing Kostova to add a little bit of “magic” to the story. I suppose the fact that Alexandra falls in love at first sight with Stoyan’s son is part of her motivation to chase him back and forth across the country to give back the urn, but it just felt extra and also like it cheapened the story a bit.
Overall, though, the rich description of Bulgaria, both modern and historic, and the slow reveal of Stoyan’s sad story, make the book a worthy read for anyone interested in reclusive country or historical fiction in general.