11 April 2017

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Summary from Goodreads:
From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country.

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

Kostova's new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.

I loved Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian when it came out.  I mean loved.  I have a signed first edition, first printing.  But I was so disappointed in The Swan Thieves.  It was so blah I DNF'd it at fifty pages - I do not DNF books lightly.  Most just hang around the house for years until I finally finish them.  So I entered into reading The Shadow Land with bated breath.  Being set in Bulgaria, I had high hopes.

The Shadow Land was good...but not nearly as gripping as The Historian. The multiple story layers do not mesh well and it takes nearly half the book for the real crux of the story to start firing. The first half is this strange, meandering tale of an American girl (who, although 26 years old, is annoyingly naive) who winds up with a box of cremains and the oddball cabbie who helps her try to find the cremains' family members.  There's also a very strange moment where Alexandra, having worried almost constantly so far that the cabbie Bobby will take advantage of her, thinks Bobby has made a pass at her until he very casually throws out the fact that he's gay.  At which point then it is "OK for them to be friends" and so on because she doesn't have to worry about attraction between them.  It could have been handled better. (The very ending of the book feels extremely tacked on and hasty, in my opinion, but your mileage may vary.)

The second half of the novel, though, is comprised of a beautiful, gutting story about a gifted musician arrested in a Stalin-era purge in Bulgaria and who survives through sheer force of will. This portion of the novel is where Kostova's talent as a writer lies.  These layers, told by various elderly characters and a written account, blend very well and reveal the lingering effects of Communism.  It was interesting to read this book after having read Elif Batuman's The Idiot and how she depicted mid-1990s Hungary; the two authors came at it from different angles which made for good reading.  I am glad that Kostova put out a new book - I want her to keep writing and exploring these ideas.

The Shadow Land is out today, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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