Years ago I tried to read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova after a friend recommended it, but I just couldn’t get in to the story. I think I gave up about a third of the way in. I never bothered with The Swan Thieves and I only decided to read her newest book, The Shadow Land, because I currently live in Sofia.
I liked the book because I love Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people. I’ve been to many of the places she writes about and so much of it felt like home. I’ve met Bulgarians who really will drop what they’re doing to help a foreigner. In fact, the character Bobby could easily be based on a real Sofia taxi driver that many of us in the Ex-pat community know and love.
But I’m still not a fan of Kostova’s writing style. So much of it feels dumbed down and predictable. The main character, Alexandra, is a young American who has come to Bulgaria, a country that always intrigued her deceased brother, to teach English. She mixes up her luggage with someone else’s at a local hotel and in trying to give it back, a journey of intrigue ensues.
The parts of the story that involve her brother seem almost an afterthought and don’t really fit in. I suppose it is background meant to add depth to Alexandra, but that could just as easily have been accomplished with one of her heartfelt conversations with Bobby. It’s through those that we learn the most about her anyway and it’s the Bulgarians in the novel who have the real depth and offer the story that holds the reader’s attention.
The story alternates between the present and the past. We go back in time, when Bulgaria was communist, when life was a little more difficult, movement wasn’t quite so free and labor camps were a reality. In the present day, Bobby explains the political corruption (Transparency International recently named Bulgaria the most corrupt country in the E.U.) that still has a hold on his country and the concrete apartment blocks, overgrown parks with rusted out playgrounds, and empty factories leftover from the communist era. We travel to quaint villages where time seems to have stood still and through majestic mountains that rise about centuries-old monasteries.
Kostova clearly loves Bulgaria and when she focuses her novel on the country, its past and its present, that love practically jumps off the page into the reader’s heart. Read The Shadow Land for that – to fall in love with Bulgaria and its people.