The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Years ago now, certainly before I started blogging, I read The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel based on the legend of Dracula. It had sounded like the sort of book I would enjoy, but I remember being disappointed, although I can’t recall the reasons why. I didn’t read her next novel, The Swan Thieves, but when I heard about this latest one, The Shadow Land, I decided it was time to give Kostova another try. That was a good decision, because I found this to be a moving, powerful and beautifully written novel and I liked it much more than The Historian.

The Shadow Land is set in Bulgaria, beginning in 2008 when a young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, arrives in the country’s capital city of Sofia, where she will be starting a new job as a teacher at the Central English Institute. Discovering that she has arrived at the wrong hotel, she stands outside to wait for a taxi and here she falls into conversation with a family consisting of an elderly couple and another younger man who are also leaving the hotel. It’s not until Alexandra is sitting in her taxi, on her way to her destination, that she discovers she has picked up a bag belonging to the elderly people. Looking inside, she is horrified to find that she is now in possession of an urn engraved with the name Stoyan Lazarov and containing somebody’s ashes.

Instructing her taxi driver, Bobby, to take her to the nearest police station, Alexandra hopes this will be the end of the matter, but when the police prove to be less helpful than she’d expected, she decides to find the family and return the urn to them herself. She knows what it’s like to grieve for a loved one – her brother Jack disappeared on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains several years earlier – and she wants to make her apologies in person. However, the family of Stoyan Lazarov appear to have disappeared almost without trace…and it seems that somebody else is also searching for the urn.

With Bobby’s help, Alexandra travels around Bulgaria from town to town, trying to pick up the trail of Stoyan’s family and in each place she visits she learns a little bit more about the man whose ashes she is carrying. I have to admit, I found this quite unconvincing as I’m sure most of us would just have handed the urn in to the hotel reception or insisted on leaving it with the police – and even if we had decided to track the people down ourselves, it’s unlikely that a taxi driver we’d only just met would agree to come with us! The implausibility of this central plot point, however, didn’t really bother me because I was already enjoying the story so much.

Having the action moving from one location to another also gives Kostova an opportunity to describe the feel and appearance of various Bulgarian towns and villages and to capture the beauty of the countryside. Because we’re seeing all of this through Alexandra’s eyes, we can appreciate what it’s like to be exploring a new country for the first time, unable to speak the language and with no knowledge of local customs and traditions. As for Bobby, I loved him and, unlikely as it might have seemed, I was glad that he decided to abandon his usual routine and join Alexandra on her mission.

The Shadow Land really is a fascinating novel. It begins with a simple idea – a person accidentally taking something which doesn’t belong to them and then trying to return it – and slowly expands into an examination of Bulgaria’s history, of war, communism and political unrest, and of one man’s courage in the face of unimaginable horrors. I wish I could go into more detail, but I would rather let you read about Stoyan Lazarov’s experiences for yourself. It’s a very dark novel in places, particularly later in the book as Stoyan’s story begins to unfold, but it’s an important story and, despite the darkness, I think it’s one that needs to be told.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.