As much as I enjoy non-fiction, if I really want to learn about something I’ll try to find a novel based around the subject or theme, especially when it comes to travel. I’m certainly not alone is this – I know this because, when I worked in bookshops, one of the most common interactions I had with customers went a little something like this: “I’m going on holiday to [insert enviable location here]. Can you recommend any novels set there?”
I can’t remember if anyone ever asked me for a novel about Bulgaria but, if I still worked in bookselling, then The Shadow Land would be the perfect recommendation (it’s also just as good if you’re not planning a trip there!). It combines a contemporary narrative focusing on Alexandra – a young American visiting Sofia – “in the middle of the city, in the middle of a history about which she had no real idea,” with a family’s dark history going back to the Second World War.
Kostova’s portrayal of Bulgaria, a country for which she has a huge amount of personal affection, is staggering in the novel’s rich detail, beautiful language and pervasive sense of history, culture and folklore. Sofia especially shines and makes me desperate to visit a country that I hitherto knew little about! Kostova’s passion for Bulgaria began on a visit in 1989, a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She found Sofia magically historic but also bleak and knew one day she’d write about it. More recently, given permission to visit the ruins of one of its labour camps, she found that after years of research into the country for The Shadow Land, her story had found its crux.
The plot is no less engrossing and compelling than the setting. Alexandra, within moments of arriving in Sofia, accidentally ends up with an urn containing human ashes. Her storyline weaves through the city and the country as she, with the help of stalwart taxi driver Bobby, attempts to track down the owners of the urn, the family of Stoyan Lazarov. Alexandra’s own past is subtly wrought but striking and poignant, providing more than just a frame to the story of Stoyan and his family. His narrative, which intersects the modern day, is an incredible account of life under the communist regime during the war and in mid-century Bulgaria.
Reviews for The Shadow Land:
“Fans will keep coming back for her authentic detail, her scope, and her sense of suspense.” – Guardian
“The Shadow Land is thrilling, and not just as a gripping tale. It’s also thrilling to watch such a talented writer cast her spell. The central character actually begins this deft novel in an urn, only to emerge as one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in a long time.” – Richard Russo
“Her encounters peel back Bulgaria’s troubled recent history and comprise the biography of a nation as much of as a family… beautifully written, gently gripping novel. ” – Daily Mail
“The aftermath of loss, the haunting beauty of Bulgaria and an unsettling mystery surrounding an urn of human ashes all come together in Elizabeth Kostova’s elegantly written novel…Written with great zest and beautifully descriptive detail, making the soul of this novel, The Shadow Land is a fascinating, moreish read, demonstrating the power of a great story.” – Readers Digest