I have had Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel The Historian sitting on my To Read shelf for some time so while I recognized her name when her upcoming The Shadow Land came up in my possible preview pile, I hadn’t actually read her work before. The Shadow Land also fell into my recent inclination towards historic fiction that explores the nations of Europe in the aftermath of World War II so I jumped to preview it. Though it proved for me to be slow reading, the depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s is a harsh one that the area struggles to deal with even in the decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Alexandra Boyd decided she needed a change so she signed up to teach English in Bulgaria but before she can even reach her hostel and start to settle in, things begin to go wrong. Assisting a middle-aged man and his elderly parents into a taxi, Alexandra soon discovers that one of their bags has gotten mixed in with her own. Containing the ashes of someone obviously dear to them, she sets about trying to find them again so she can return the urn and apologize for the mix-up. Her taxi driver, Asparuh who tells her to call him Bobby, offers to help her in her efforts to track the family down. Receiving an address from the police, Alexandra insists on returning the remains personally. As she and Bobby follow a trail of breadcrumbs, it becomes clear there’s more to the story of the man in the urn and his family than they realized.
I very much enjoyed the story at the heart of this novel however the pacing drained a lot of my enthusiasm. Receiving Alexandra’s personal backstory in the first section of the novel interspersed with the beginning of her search was compelling but was explored at a depth that wasn’t as necessary to convey how it helped establish parallels between her character and the deceased Stoyan Lazarov, especially since Alexandra as a character gets pushed further and further to the edges of what proves to be the novel’s focus—Stoyan Lazarov’s life. Similarly, there are incidents, especially early in Alexandra and Bobby’s search, that are meant to create tension and inspire questions—who’s following them and why are they apparently after this urn—but there aren’t enough answers to the questions raised and the incidents take too long proving tedious rather than plot-advancing. When the answers do finally come out (in a climax I found incredibly anti-climactic and rushed given all the build-up), it becomes clear that a lot of the early back-and-forth could probably have been cut.
The novel’s strengths lie in the interweaving of Stoyan’s account of what he endured with the pieces finally beginning to fall into place for Alexandra and Bobby in the last third or so of the novel. The psychological means by which Stoyan endured and persevered through what he did are incredibly realized through their presentation in a first person account and blend beautifully with the second-hand accounts of him in the second part of the novel where the portion of his life being described happens after this first-person account takes place. The out-of-order piecing together of Stoyan’s life transcends the clunky mystery/thriller that serves to frame it. But though it doesn’t work too well for me on the page, I can easily envision The Shadow Land being adapted into a television mini-series and I think it would work beautifully in that medium.
The Shadow Land will be available for purchase April 11, 2017.