I looked forward to The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova but have an ambiguous opinion after finishing.
More than one story takes place in this long novel, but for me, only one story felt genuine--that of Stoyan Lazarov.
Two narratives involve Alexandra, a young American woman who comes to Bulgaria to teach English. One narrative involves her childhood in the Appalachians and the disappearance of her brother Jack on a family hike. This story, told through occasional flashbacks, involves Alexandra's guilt at her last words to Jack. The contemporary narrative follows Alexandria in Bulgaria.
In 2008, Alexandra arrives in Sofia. She helps three people into a taxi and inadvertently keeps one of their bags. After they've left, Alexandra gets into another taxi and discovers her mistake. She is dismayed to realize that she has an urn with the ashes of someone called Stoyan Lazarov. Her attempts to return the remains will have her and her intrepid taxi driver traveling from one site to another throughout the book. She doesn't speak Bulgarian, but remarkably, her driver Bobby is willing to take her from village to village despite increasing danger. Yep, that sounds reasonable.
Obviously, Elizabeth Kostova loves Bulgaria, but the amount of detail that does not advance the story becomes an encumbrance and the journey itself becomes repetitive--this village, that village, into the mountains, back down again. Most of this week long adventure would have been spent in travel.
But about half-way through the book, we begin to get the story of Stoyan Lazarov, a gifted musician. Communist occupation forces took over Bulgaria after the war, and postwar Bulgaria was a dangerous place. Stoyan happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and became a political prisoner without trial. Sent to a labor camp with hundreds of others who often did not even know what they had done wrong, Stoyan endures the horrific conditions by retreating into his mind and his music.
Stoyan's story is the important part of The Shadow Land. The plotting on the journey portions made the book slow going, the back story about Jack did not contribute to the plot.
Stoyan's story, however, has a vitality and coherence that the rest of the book lacks. The Shadow Land looks behind the Iron Curtain in the years after the conclusion of WWII and provides a reminder of the kinds of abuse society can inflict on its citizens.
It takes half the book to get to Stoyan's story, and many will abandon the book before they get there, but Stoyan made the experience worth it for me.
From a Kirkus Review: "Kostova’s passion and tragic sense of history, along with jewellike character studies, almost make up for the overplotting and repetitiveness as she drums her points home."
Read in January; blog review scheduled for March 27.
Literary fiction. April 11, 2017. Print length: 496 pages.