Sunday, April 2, 2017

THE SHADOW LAND by Elizabeth Kostova

Elizabeth Kostova

            When Alexandra Boyd, a young American, arrives in Sofia, Bulgaria to teach, a taxi drops her at the wrong hotel. After the jet-lagged Alexandra encounters a Bulgarian family outside the hotel, she gets into another taxi, to take her to the proper location, and belatedly realizes that one of the family’s bags is now accidentally in her possession. Looking inside, she discovers that the bag contains an urn with the cremated remains of Stoyan Lazarov. With the help of an unusual taxi driver, Alexandra embarks on a sort of single minded mission to find the family so that she can return the remains. While the taxi driver drives Alexandra seemingly all around Bulgaria in search of the family, we learn about Stoyan Lazarov, a gifted musician, and about the history of labor camps in Bulgaria.

            I loved Kostova’s earlier novels, The Historian and The Swam Thieves (see reviews dated June 27, 2015), and I was so looking forward to reading more of her work. The Shadow Land, however, left me disappointed.

            The story line in The Shadow Land feels contrived, forced. Although Alexandra’s chance meeting with the family sets up the meat of the story, the whole premise seems unrealistic and, well, somewhat silly. Alexandra’s backstory, about her life in North Carolina, is interesting, but feels irrelevant to the real story that Kostova wants to tell. In fact, Alexandra herself does not seem to add much to this real story – she is just a nice young woman who wants to return remains that accidentally ended up in her possession and is just along for the ride.

Kostova wanted to tell Stoyan’s story – and it is a good one; she wanted to tell Bulgaria’s story – and it is interesting. But, the vehicle she employs to tell these stories, Alexandra, does not work, and the plot feels disjointed. Alexandra feels superfluous.

            Kostova has done a good job of capturing the fear that permeated Bulgarian citizens in Stoyan’s heyday. She has done a good job of capturing the horrific nature of the secret labor camps. It is clear that she loves her adopted country. But, I am not sure that she has succeeded in conveying the basis of that love to her readers. After completing the book, I do not see the beauty or feel the pull of the country that Kostova obviously does, and I feel no inclination that Bulgaria is a “must-see”.

            Although I am still a fan – and will again await Kostova’s next novel – The Shadow Land does not measure up to the usual Kostova standards.

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