The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova
Rating: 4 stars
Elizabeth Kostova’s latest novel is an intriguing mystery set in Eastern Europe as one American woman seeks to return a lost bag to its owner. I loved The Swan Thieves* and couldn’t wait to read her latest work. It seems like Kostova sticks with a darker, historical tone in her books, and it clearly works. The Shadow Land is an impressive mystery that takes us across Bulgaria.
The novel starts with Alexandra Boyd, an aimless 20-something American woman who decides to teach English in Bulgaria to hopefully give her life some momentum after wasting away in her hometown for her first few of years out of college. Alexandra and her parents never recovered from the disappearance of her older brother when he was 16, and it’s something that clearly still haunts her as she chose his favorite country to spend a year in.
When she first gets out of her cab from the airport in Sofia it’s at the wrong hotel (thanks of her lack of local language skills). While waiting for a new cab to go to her hostel, she helps an elderly trio with their bags as they get in the taxi before hers. Unfortunately, she accidentally keeps one of their bags and only finds out when she already in another taxi. Even more unfortunate, it turns out that bag has the ashes of someone important to the elderly family. Luckily, her taxi driver decides to help her return the bag. What they both don’t realize is that this errand will take more than a week and lead them all across the country as they try to track down a family that does not want to be found. Also, the ashes may be the key to a secret that dates back to the time of the Communist regime, one that some people would do anything to make sure stays a secret.
There are several things to love about the book:
- The setting: I don’t know much about Bulgaria, but Kostova elegantly describes the beautiful country and the people still dealing with the tragic effects of a brutal Communist government.
- The mystery: I love a good mystery, and this book delivers. While one of the twists seemed a bit obvious, it was still well thought-out and all of the loose strings tied together nicely at the end.
- The friendship: I hate books and movies that pair the two main leads together even though they only know each other for about week of intense stress. Kostova thankfully avoids that here, and Alexandra and Bobby become close friends, but nothing more. There is no forced romance to take away from the plot.
While I enjoyed this book, there were also a couple of issues:
- The length: Most of the 500 pages flew by, but there were definitely sections that seemed to drag and could have been shorter.
- The language: I do appreciate the beautiful descriptions, but sometimes it felt like Kostova was just trying to show us how many big words she could use in one sentence. It brought to mind that Hemingway quote.
I recommend this the anyone interested in historical fiction, Eastern Europe, Bulgaria, or historical mysteries
* Something about lost, stolen, forgotten, or forged artwork appeals to me. If you also enjoy these types of works I will post a list of recommendations soon.