Alexandra Boyd, a young american woman, moves to Sofia hoping to heal the wounds caused by the loss of her brother. After arriving in Bulgarias capital she mistakenly keeps the bag of an elderly couple when she helps them into a taxi. She soon discovers that the bag contains an urn with human ashes. With the help of a Bulgarian taxi driver she sets out to return these to the family. While doing so, they dive deep into one of the darkest chapters of Bulgarian history – and into the story of a young and talented musician.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve been as excited about a book as I was about this one. I basically fell in love with it the first time I read its blurb and couldn’t wait to read the book. What interested me most was the part about Bulgarias history. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about the history of the former Eastern Bloc states. So to read a book about one of them seemed like a great way to change that.
„Do you like Bulgaria? People say that it is the place where anything [can] happen.“
– Neven Lazarov, p. 7
This hope came true, even though most of the book takes place in present Bulgaria. But Kostova manages to show the influence the communist regime still has. It reminded me of post-war Germany, when many Nazis were able to move on with their lives as if nothing ever happened. Bulgaria was not part of the Sovjet Union but they were members of the Warsaw Pact and had a similar regime under the Bulgarian Communist Party. In The Shadow Land, Bulgarias past has an influence on its present time because some officials were not prosecuted.
„Politicans who talk about purity usually end up deciding who is pure and who is not.“
– Asparuh Iliev, p. 111
In addition to the interesting historic background, the characters in the books are well written. Alexandra and her Bulgarian taxi driver were quite lovable and even the „bad guys“ were not one-dimensional bad. There were reasons behind their behaviour and I understood why they acted the way they did.
I also liked how The Shadow Land offers an insight into Bulgarian culture, customs and landscape. After reading the book I feel like I got a glimpse into the country and its population.
Also, the novel’s plot was realistic. It was surprising at times but never in a way that made me question the surprises. Although its style of writing is calm, sometimes a bit poetic, the book has a very unique excitement. This is mostly due to the fact that you never know why everybody coming into contact with the urn suddenly is in danger, but also because of some strategically placed cliffhangers.
Even when events don’t become strange and dark, there are moments in a new place when you glance too far off into a distance or encounter the unwelcoming stare of a stranger and are suddenly displaced, a kind of travel within travel.
– Alexandra Boyd, p. 288
As much as I was looking forward to reading The Shadow Land I’m now looking forward to reading more books from Elizabeth Kostova. I liked to read about Bulgaria, a country I haven’t read much about so far and I especially liked how Kostova wrote about said country. And I can’t wait the read more of her intriguing stories where reality and fiction come together in the best way possible.
„[T]he terrible thing in communism was not just that we turned against each other. It was that we turned away from each other.“
– Neven Lazarov, p. 441
Other opinions about The Shadow Land:
- Reading for Sanity (4 stars; „Good historical fiction has a way of bringing the past to life that I wholeheartedly appreciate and this book does just that.“)
- theliterarysister („it failed to pull me in, and it got to the point where I simply could not stand to read more about the very annoying Alexandra“)
- Jenn’s Bookshelves (highly recommended; „highlighting the power of endurance, of courage and compassion, despite the pain and suffering“)
About Elizabeth Kostova:
Kostova was born in New London, Connecticut, in 1964. She studied at Yale University, receiving a B.A. in British Studies and later a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. From 1989 on she spent a year in Bulgaria where she met her later husband, Georgi Kostov.
Her debut novel The Historian, published in 2005, made publishing history by debuting on #1 of the New York Times Bestseller List. It’s been translated into 40 languages.
Since then Kostova published two more books: The Swan Thieves in 2010 and The Shadow Land in 2017.
She is co-founder of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation which enables native-English writers to visit Bulgaria and provides access to competitive opportunities for Bulgarian writers and translators.
Source: Kostovas website & Wikipedia
Publisher’s webpage about the book
Paperback: ISBN 978-0-345-52787-5 | $18,00 | 512 pages | published 13 March 2018