You know when you’ve started a book, and you’re committed to finishing it, but as you’re chipping away, your thought process is mostly along the lines of, “aghhh!”?
The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova was like that for me.
Now let me say this: it was not a bad book. In fact, it was a good book. But it could have been better. Like, 200 pages less, better. It really wasn’t until around page 350 (out of 477) that the story really picked up and got a move on.
Alexandra Boyd is an American teacher who had just arrived in Bulgaria. One of the first things she does is help and elderly couple and a man get into a taxi, and in so doing, accidentally keeps a piece of their luggage–soon finding out that it is actually an urn filled with human ashes. Imagining these strangers must be distraught at losing something so precious, Alexandra commits to finding the family and returning the urn.
As she and her new Bulgarian friend/taxi driver set out on a search for these people, they get hints and clues that these ashes, belonging to one Stoyan Lazarov, hold a history and story that, to one man in particular, is worth killing for.
The story explores grief, atonement, and hope in the setting of Bulgarian history, setting the scene amid the country’s tumultuous years after World War II (think post-World War II Russia).
Kostova tells a compelling story and develops her characters well; it was easy to feel the anxiety Alexandra experienced, being alone in a new place, suddenly in possession of something that isn’t hers, her mind racing through extreme possibilities, uncertain of how authorities and the urn’s owners might respond to her having it.
You also relate to Stoyan Lazarov, whose history is related throughout the course of the story, understanding the guilt he feels for an ill-considered comment and the difficulty he faces not only surviving a labor camp, but trying to hold on to himself in the process.
No, the difficult part of the story was that the bulk of the first 300 pages was Alexandra and Bobby, the taxi driver, going from place to place, asking after the family and being told they haven’t been seen. And because the book is nearly 500 pages, you know that they aren’t going to find the family in the first 100 or even 200 pages, so you know it’s going to be a lot more fruitless asking.
Kostova uses her pages to set a detailed scene, each place Alexandra and Bobby visit is described minutely and it does come to life, but those descriptions also slowed down the pace of the story.
The other difficult part, for me, anyway, was the jumping from first to third person. Not that it was difficult to follow, she did very well to make it clear whose perspective it was, and in some instances it was a good technique, allowing for the ramblings of an old woman, ramblings that would otherwise be hard to depict, and yet are crucial to that character. The jumping that I didn’t care for was the diary, if you will, of Stoyan Lazarov. I understand that Kostova is trying to draw out that narrative and entwine it with the narrative of the story’s present day, but there is no relation. Snippets of the journal are interspersed with the main story without any seeming rhyme or reason.
The snippets began when the journal pages were first discovered, and to me, it would have made easier reading to have it all together, or weave it in to the story more. Maybe they only read a few pages right off, and they read a few more later. Or perhaps the pages were hidden in other places, so they were continually discovering a few more. Or perhaps they were just returning to them and rereading them. Alexandra seems the type of person who would do that. I liked having that story drawn out and woven in, but, the stickler inside of me wanted some little transition to tell me why I’m getting another snap shot from 50 years ago now, instead of after the last chapter, or after the next chapter.
All in all, The Shadow Land really was a good book. It’s good for people who enjoy history, good for those who enjoy a little intrigue, good for those who just enjoy a well-written story. You just need to be prepared to commit to it, because it gets a little slow in the beginning.
Keep and eye out for The Shadow Land, set for publication April 25.