Book Review of The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Shadows everywhere. Shadows between mountains, shadows under tired eyes, shadows in dreams, shadows of memory, shadows of the past.

In The Shadow Land  by Elizabeth Kostova, darkness is forced to face the light. Alexandra, an American travelling to Europe to teach English, lands in post-Communist Bulgaria, bringing her own cloudy past to this land of secrets and cover-ups. Almost instantly, she casually meets a group of strangers, accidentally taking one of their bags, in which she finds an urn containing ashes.  Wanting to return the urn, Alexandra crisscrosses the country with her taxi driver in search of the strangers, sinking deeper into intrigue with each hour.

Although this was a long novel, it was only slow as a river in a forest, cool and shady, deep and mysterious. Reading this, I felt like I was in the back of Alexandra’s taxi, watching the mountainous landscape drift by, listening to tales of the past being slowly leaked to the present. The story has this old-soul quality: I felt almost the same as when I was little watching black-and-white films: The Man Who Knew Too Much or To Catch a Thief. There’s intrigue and mystery, heartbreak and joy, and this sense of discovery that I find all too rare in the modern novel.

But this discovery lead me to a place I was not expecting: Eastern Europe during World War II, with the threat of the Nazis, and directly after the war, under Soviet control. Although Alexandra is our leading lady, she is really uncovering the tale of a Bulgarian violinist: Stoyan Lazarov. We follow him through his passion for music and for his wife and then through his years in a forced-labor camp working in a quarry. I just finished reading Lilac Girls, and this camp reminded me of the Nazis imprisoning the Polish; only this time, it was the Soviet-controlled government hounding anyone who showed signs of resistance or too much dangerous knowledge. Some of these scenes were difficult for me to read, but I felt that they were important. Many stories of those in captivity in Communist Europe go unheard, unknown, and this novel is an opportunity to pay tribute to those who suffered silently.


Topographical Map of Bulgaria ~ Image by Equestenebrarum, Wikimedia Commons

Kostova has crafted a beautiful novel. Each chapter either follows Alexandra’s journey, or provides us a flashback from her life in America, or explains Stoyan’s past. In this way, the tragic past comes slowly into light, never crossing over into sentimentality or melodrama. While a road trip across Bulgaria to return an accidentally stolen urn seems unlikely, the story feels real. And although the mystery of Alexandra’s journey is fascinating, the meta-narrative of Stoyan the violin player is the true heart of this book.

A major element in Stoyan’s story is music: he plays the violin prodigiously, but with government restrictions and imprisonment, he is never able to fulfill his performance dreams. One scene I particularly like takes place when Stoyan returns home after studying in Vienna. To pay for some bread, he gets out his violin and plays in a bakery: “…now it seemed to him a new set of notes, fresh and passionate, an almost unrecognizable melody that his fingers happened to find on the strings. It fell all around him into the high-ceilinged old room, into the smell of bread, the greasy front windows, onto the sleeves of his carefully brushed jacket. It shimmered on the face of the girl staring at him” (145).

Another part of Stoyan’s narrative is his internal thought life. He imagines scenes of his family and of the composer Antonio Vivaldi as he works in the forced-labor camp, and this is how he gets through each day of torture, through his imagination. He imagines music, each note and phrase, and how to play them on his violin back home. This was a very intriguing way to pull in the internal life of a suffering man, and I felt it opened up this character to the book.

Stara Planina, Bulgaria ~ Image by Rusalina, Wikimedia Commons

There are a lot subtle themes in this book: shadows, memory, family. But especially mountains. Alexandra herself is called “a mountain of contradictions” (249). She is originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, a place that holds deep suffering for her. And now she is traversing the Balkans of Bulgaria to the northwest of Turkey. These mountains hold deep things for Alexandra, and for this novel. They hold secrets and tragedy, hidden villages, and the scars of an authoritarian regime.

While shadows cover all, they do not ultimately weigh down this novel. We notice and experience shadows only so we can see the contrast of light. Finishing The Shadow Land this morning, I felt like I saw into the beautiful light of Bulgaria with all its complicated past as well as the light of hope and redemption. This book? Just right.

Thank you to Penguin Random House and Ballantine for providing this book for review.


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