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The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

BOTTOM LINE: Beautiful writing, atmospheric – the type of novel that has depth behind it, focusing on the details as much as the story. I loved every word of it.

Genre: Literary Fiction; Suspense & Thriller
Publication Date: 11 April 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“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 political oppression—and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

Elizabeth 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.”

My Thoughts: The Shadow Land is the type of novel I want to push into everyone’s hands. The imagery throughout the novel is gorgeous, and Ms. Kostova’s attention to detail ensures that readers get more than a sense of the landscape and culture of Bulgaria during Communist rule and after. The characters are well-developed and nuanced. The story delves into a little-known aspect of history and a corner of the world that does not see much in the way of exposure via literature. The mystery is intriguing, and the cross-country search for answers means that there are very few spots of inaction.

Unfortunately, it is also the type of novel that so few people enjoy these days. To call a novel slow to develop is practically a death knell for any work of fiction looking to be popular, and many would call The Shadow Land slow. Others would look at the length of the novel and dismiss it as too big and clunky. While people continue to read and sales of books continue to climb, people prefer novels that are fast-paced and short today.

The thing is that novels that are long and supposedly slow are often among the most rewarding novels to read. The Shadow Land takes its time to establish the foreign setting and the characters. In that regard, it is very European. Watch a European dine, and you will understand immediately what I mean. They savor their food and drink. They take their time and enjoy the experience. The book is similar. It invites you to savor the culture and the atmosphere, to get to know the characters, and appreciate their journey. It is a novel to be read slowly so that you enjoy every last moment.

This is not to say the story is boring. In fact, it is anything but that. It spans a vast swath of time during a period of history that changed rapidly and often. With flashbacks going all the way to pre-World War II Bulgaria to Bulgaria of 2008, it shows how confused Europe got until Hitler’s regime and later with the Soviet Bloc. It highlights the fear that existed, the constant worry that the knock at the door was the police coming to take you away for an unknown crime. Ms. Kostova provides exquisite details on the countryside and its towns and villages. However, with that comes the understanding of the severe poverty in which so much of the country’s citizens remain. In detailing Stoyan’s story, one gets a well-written history lesson of the atrocities done in the name of Communism, and in describing Alexandra’s story, one gets an equally well-written lesson on the current issues facing the country. All this during almost nonstop action as Alexandra races from one location to another in her hunt for the mysterious couple.

The Shadow Land is like a warm bath or a trip to the spa. It is not a story to race through and finish in one sitting. Like the bath or the spa, it is an experience one should enjoy slowly and thoroughly. When one does this, the reward is a novel that brings Bulgaria to life and provides a fantastic story around which to highlight the country’s history. In her author’s notes, Ms. Kostova mentions her love for her adopted country; that love radiates from every page.

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