Monday, May 01, 2017

Elizabeth Kostova's The Shadow Land, a Bulgarian road trip adventure with history and some mystery

Kostova’s third novel (after The Historian and The Swan Thieves) is a road trip adventure mixed with mystery, literary fiction, and a little suspense, but even that doesn’t encompass its full cross-genre appeal. The story opens in the spring of 2008, as Alexandra Boyd, fresh off a plane to Bulgaria to take an English teaching job, finds herself unintentionally entangled in another family’s private business.

After briefly encountering an elderly couple and their middle-aged son outside a hotel in Sofia, Alexandra is horrified to discover she mistakenly took one of their bags into her taxi: a satchel with a carved box containing an urn filled with ashes. The box is labeled with the name of an elderly man, Stoyan Lazarov, who had died two years earlier. Alexandra’s determined quest to find the family and reunite them with their loved one’s remains is as deep and multi-layered as Bulgaria’s own history.

Although she’s cautious about strange men, Alexandra slowly befriends her taxi driver, Bobby, who becomes an active participant in her mission when it becomes clear that someone’s putting up roadblocks in Alexandra’s way.

As they travel across the country, from tiny villages left nearly unchanged by time to the steep outcrops of the Rhodope Mountains, they encounter warm hospitality and also many signs of danger. Stoyan’s neighbors and relatives share memories that shed light on the talented violinist who suffered under Bulgaria’s communist regime. The country’s painful past is revealed through periodic flashbacks and through Stoyan’s own account, which is powerfully moving.

Kostova’s ability to paint images in the reader’s mind is exquisite. She clearly loves Bulgaria and writes passages that show its mesmerizing beauty. The plot fits the definition of “meandering,” and Alexandra’s and Bobby’s travel route sometimes feels overlong, but this is a book in which the journey matters as much as the destination.


The Shadow Land was published last month by Ballantine in the US (hardcover, 496pp); the UK publisher is Text, who had made it available on NetGalley as a Read Now for a while -- so I had snagged it there.  This review appears in May's Historical Novels Review as well.

This is my first experience with one of Kostova's novels. Both The Historian and The Swan Thieves have been on the TBR for way too long. I've read that The Shadow Land is a departure since the pacing is more leisurely and the suspense novel not as high. I'd be interested to hear what other readers think of this book, or of her earlier ones.


  1. Can't wait to read it!

  2. I loved The Historian. I have enjoyed the other two, including this one, though I had a harder time connecting with them for some reason. I am glad she wrote about this country, it really gave me some fresh insight, and I am infinitely curious about what people faced behind the Iron Curtain, the Wall.

    1. I really ought to read The Historian - so many people I know have said they loved it.

      Before reading this novel, I hadn't known much about Bulgaria (or had thought about it, really)... it was extremely informative in that respect.