In Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land, Alexandra Boyd, a young woman haunted by her past, stumbles into an adventure that will change her life within an hour of arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria. The ghost that haunts her is her older brother who died at sixteen in the most guilt-inducing circumstances possible. She has come to Bulgaria to teach, but her deeper purpose is to fulfill her brother’s dream of traveling there. Perhaps by traveling to where he always wanted to go, she can conquer her grief.
Her adventure starts out pretty small, she accidentally picks up a bag belonging to some people she helped with their luggage as they got into the taxi before her. Looking inside the bag for a name, she finds a burial urn with the ashes of a man named Stoyan Lazarov. Decency demands she do all she can to return their loved one’s ashes. It’s all pretty simple, really, leave a message at the hotel, check in with the police, go to where they mentioned they planned to go, and just follow through until she finds them. Luckily, Bobby, her taxi cab driver, is surprisingly amendable to pursuing this mission. He is even more surprisingly adept at investigating.
But it gets complicated. The taxi is repeatedly vandalized. Someone is following them, leaving threats. The family they are searching for seems to be hiding, not answering the phone, not returning calls. Even when they track down family of the people they are looking for, their family cannot reach them.
Meanwhile, they learn more and more about the man whose ashes they are carrying around Bulgaria. A master violinist, an intriguing man, a man of secrets, a man whose secrets match his talents. A counter narrative develops, following Stoyan Lazarov’s life from when he returns from Vienna in 1940, through the war and the Communist regime that follows, including his several years in a brutal labor camp.
There are all the elements of a very moving story in The Shadow Land, but some of Kostova’s decisions as an author distanced me from it emotionally. Despite the damage that happens to taxi, I never felt that Alexandra was ever in jeopardy. Even with the violence at the denouement, the jeopardy was too distant.
The labor camp narrative was harrowing, but again, we know he survives the camp since we know he died in 2006. It is also focused on his mental strategies for surviving the camp, his daily rituals of raising an imaginary son, rehearsing and playing music in his head. We know exactly how he raised the son that did not exist. Moreover, much of his story is told in stories by people they visit or in his written narrative they discover. It might have been more interesting if rather than being told as history, it was told more immediately as flashbacks.
The biggest problem, though, is that Alexandra was not that important to the result. Sure, she picked up the wrong bag. Sure, she wanted to get it back to the rightful owners, no doubt helped in her determination by the good looks of the man who left the bag. But who did the investigating? Who did the work? Bobby! Bobby was the real actor, Alexandra was literally and metaphorically, just a passenger. She had as much personality as a stale dishcloth. Bobby was interesting, Bobby was smart. I would read another book about Bobby, but not about Alexandra.
My favorite character was a dog–a very special dog. The dog was clever, loyal, smart, and the most decisive actor in the story. Seriously, without the dog, the story could have ended very differently. I loved the dog. I also really liked Bobby, who was the complex and interesting character in the book. Sadly, though, we soon learn that Bobby is a national award-winning poet, yet Kostova does not share one stanza of his poetry with us. That’s not fair.
On a more positive note, the story reveals Kostova’s deep love of the people and the land of Bulgaria. There’s folklore, history, and descriptions that make me want to go there. I want to see those houses, those villages, those mountains. There are several secondary characters who are truly interesting, an old woman-seer, an artist, an old woman and her daughter. They are fascinating. If only the main character could compete.
The Shadow Land will be released April 11th. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.