Book Review: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova
People seem to believe that despair is the same as anguish, but it is not. It’s true that despair is surrounded by anguish, but at its core, despair is silent, a blank page.
Alexandra ventured across the world to teach English in Bulgaria- a place she dreamed about together with her brother. After his disappearance she felt compelled to visit since he may never get to see that green spot on the map.
Now she was alone, more thoroughly than she had ever been in her twenty-six years. In the middle of the city, in the middle of a history about which she had no real idea…
A fumbled encounter with an elderly couple and their younger companion leaves her with one of their bags, filled with something so personal she feels obliged to track them down and return it.
It was a box made of wood— ornate carving around the upper edge, the rest beautifully polished— and here at last was a label, or rather a thin wooden plaque with Cyrillic lettering chiseled onto it. Two words, one longer than the other: Стоян Лазаров.
The Cryillic inscripton on the box translates to Stoyan Lazarov which provides a starting place for the search. A taxi driver named Bobby offers her a ride, but it soon becomes much more than that. He begins to show Alexandra the deep shadows of Bulgaria, many of which are corrupt and often dangerous.
“I think it is locked.” He tried the handle again. It was old and heavy, iron bolted into wood, and it made an impotent clanking sound. “But we just came in here,” she said. Bobby’s face drew down into concentration; she felt almost afraid to look at him, exhausted and confused as she already was. “Bloody hell,” he said, and it sounded like something worse. “Somebody has locked it from the outside.”
Bobby and Alexandra single-mindedly seek out the Lazarovi family as their journey takes them all across Bulgaria. This experience is cathartic for Alexandra, deeply rooted in her unresolved feelings about her brother.  As the search twists and turns Bobby and Alexandra learn more about each other and about the mysterious Stoyan. They meet members of Stoyan’s family and the tale flashes back to help paint a picture of this man and to finally make clear the situation they have found themselves in.
They met when she was still in high school. They both liked to tell the story of how they first saw each other, although Stoyan told it best. It was one thing he did like to talk about.” Alexandra sat on her hands, thinking of the luminous face and marcelled hair in the photograph at Bovech. Had that been Vera Lazarova? “Do you remember it?” Irina smiled. “Of course. I have not yet forgotten the important things.”
Love, music and misfortune form the basis for Stoyan’s life-story which is told in bits and pieces by various individuals Bobby and Alexandra encounter along the way. As his story takes a serious turn, the unseen history of Bulgaria during WWII and The Cold War is brought forth.
He understood, then, that his punishment was already beginning, and that it would take many forms. It was already beginning, and it was only just beginning.
The trauma of Stoyan’s life and the reasons behind it both awe and terrify Alexandra. But she is brave, as is her companion, and they will not stop until their purpose for this trip is fulfilled.
Angelov spoke and Bobby listened for a moment, nodded. “Stoyan asked him to make this box, to hide the story in it, and never to tell anyone unless a life depended on it. Now he wants me to read this to you. He says that his life does not depend on it, but ours might.”
The Shadow Land is an examination of how love and persistence can be the keys to survival. Drawing from an often overlooked corner of history, Kostova does it justice by allowing this story to be told.
Read voraciously.
I received a review copy of this title from Random House via Netgalley
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