Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Journey Through History and the Human Heart

Elizabeth Kostova
Penguin Random House
April 11, 2017

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian) is a sprawling journey through the 20th-century history of Bulgaria framed by the story of Alexandra Boyd, a young American. Alexandra has just arrived in Sofia where she is to teach English. She lost her brother, Jack, as a young teenager and has carried a sense of guilt ever since. Jack disappeared while her family was on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The two had had an argument and Alexandra's last words to Jack were "Get lost". He was never seen again. Jack had always been fascinated by Bulgaria so her job is somewhat of a pilgrimage for his sake. She arrives a month early and plans to travel through Bulgaria. A chance encounter in front of a Sofia hotel changes all her plans. Somehow her luggage is tangled up with that of a small group of Bulgarians; an old lady, an old man in a wheelchair, and a handsome man. When Alexandra opens the bag, she discovers a beautiful wooden box carved with the name Stoyan Lazarov. To her horror, the box contains human ashes. Alexandra immediately hails the nearest cab and sets off, along with her driver, to find them and return the urn. The journey takes them not only through the villages and mountains of Bulgaria but also into its haunted history. War and strife are no strangers to Bulgaria and the country is still recovering from a brutal Communist regime.

Told in many viewpoints, The Shadow Land is beautifully written and entirely engrossing. The story of Stoyan Lazarov, a violinist, is tragic. While still a young man, he runs afoul of the Communist regime and is sent to a labor camp with no trial and no charges. Even his young wife, Vera, has no idea what has happened to him. Stoyan comes out of the camp in some ways broken by the brutality of what he witnessed and suffered, but still full of the courage that ensured his survival. Alexandra, too, discovers her own courage and comes to terms with her guilt at last. The Shadow Land is packed with memorable characters, from her driver, "Bobby", who is not exactly what he seems to a homeless dog Alexandra picks up along the way. I was particularly taken by Baba Yana. Baba Yana is an ancient village lady, who in telling Alexandra her life story, also tells the story of Bulgaria in the 20th-century.

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Shadow Land, I felt that the framework of the story; the travel through Bulgaria was a little implausible. Too many things seemed to fall a bit too easily into place and finding a driver who would go along with it, if even for his own reasons, too fortuitous. That being said, I still would recommend it for its historical depth and emotional impact. A review copy of The Shadow Land was provided by Penguin Random House and NetGalley. The opinions are my own.


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