Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land is another deep dive into history, though not so deep as in The Historian. In this lengthy (possibly too lengthy) novel, an American would-be Samaritan accidentally steals an urn from a trio of Bulgarians. This mishap leads Alexandra Boyd all over Bulgaria in an attempt to return the urn, all while being chases by menacing henchmen of a rising politician and trying to learn why the man in the urn is so important. As Kostova writes in her note at the end of the book, this plot serves as a platform to plunge into the history of Bulgaria’s gulag system.
Alexandra has left a depressing set of divorced parents in the Blue Ridge mountains to teach English in Sofia, Bulgaria. She chose Sofia because it was her disappeared brother’s greatest wish to visit the country. Before she even gets to her hostel, Alexandra has a brief encounter with two elderly and one middle-aged Bulgarians. When she realizes she accidentally grabbed one of their bags (which contains a beautiful wooden urn), she does everything she can to return it. All she has to go on is the name on the urn: Stoyan Lazarov. Fortunately for Alexandra, she bumbles into a very useful friendship with a taxi driver, Asparuh, who has a lot more skill in detection that one might expect from the average cab driver. Her only misstep at the outset is to—as any Westerner might—ask the police for help tracing the family.
With the family incommunicado for most of the book, Alexandra and Asparuh end up traveling from Sofia to rural and mountain villages to Plovdiv to the Black Sea coast and back. With each stop, they learn a little bit more why an obscure violinist is of such interest to the politician who might be the next prime minister. The long historical and geographical road trip ends with a fairly spectacular show down in an old forced labor camp.
Unfortunately for us, the full revelations of what’s going on come very late in the book. We have to take the long way round, much like Alexandra and Asparuh. The Shadow Land is a thriller written by a historian. Someone more savvy with the genre’s conventions would have gone through this book like a buzzsaw, trimming unnecessary background (especially the odd first-person chapters in which Alexandra talks about her childhood and missing brother) and possibly a few of the stops. Because Kostova is a historian, moreover a historian with a reputation for writing novels with multiple layers of narrative frames, there are many digressions that are interesting but just slow things down in a plot that should race.
The best parts of The Shadow Land are the rich descriptions of Bulgaria’s varied landscapes, from post-Communist cities to mountains that have been inhabited for centuries. (I particularly loved the story of Baba Yana’s house, though it added only a little to the novel.) I want to go see some of the places Alexandra saw—hopefully not chased by henchmen, though. Some of the secondary characters were wonderful (mostly the old ladies). But by about page 300, I was very ready to be done with The Shadow Land.