Elizabeth Kostova goes to modern-day Bulgaria to explore the sins of the country’s communist past — and the talented musician who became a victim of it — in her new novel The Shadow Land (Ballantine, 476 pp., *** out of four stars).
Lyrical prose, political mystery and a descriptive look back at life in the post-World War II Eastern Bloc ultimately make this latest book by the author of the best-selling The Historian a satisfying read. But readers first must slog through Shadow Land’s first quarter, a ponderous travelogue that introduces Kostova’s lead characters.
Alexandra Boyd is a young North Carolina woman who has moved to Sofia to escape an earlier tragedy and start anew as a teacher in the Bulgarian capital city. On her tiring first day in country, a mixup in luggage with three older folks at a hotel leaves Alexandra with an urn containing the remains of a mysterious man named Stoyan Lazarov.
Alexandra meets kind yet enigmatic cabbie Bobby, and with a definite lack of helpful clues, the two move between villages, monasteries and other small locales outside of Sofia trying to get Stoyan’s ashes back home — or at least to someone who knew the guy. Sightsee, talk to locals, get a next address but no actual phone number to call. Rinse, repeat.
The pace finally picks up when they discover that Stoyan was a world-class Bulgarian violinist who came back home in 1944 from Vienna with Hitler on the march. The recently deceased musician has a story to tell as well, and his emotional and often touching tale involves a young love, ambition to become concertmaster of his orchestra, and a brutal prison-labor camp run in secret whose violent legacy looms in the present for Alexandra and Bobby.
Kostova writes vividly of their travels to Bulgarian places and gives a strong sense of the country’s complicated history, especially coming out of the war in the 1940s when its king was affiliated with the Nazis and Sofia felt the impact of Allied bombs before communism set in and brought its own iron rule.
The author’s primary players are solid if not particularly strong — Alexandra’s American backstory is interesting though wasted as the narrative shifts to Stoyan. He is the novel’s highlight who gets the reader’s empathy: Vivaldi and the hope for a child get him through hard times, and Kostova’s best writing comes when investigating Stoyan and his music.
When Alexandra is poking through the home he’s left behind and his collection of scores, Kostova describes how Alexandra thinks “about how a person’s life could be distilled into so little — the person in the ashes, the work a shelf of melodies dead to the air.”
The Shadow Land is an intriguing examination of Bulgarian culture and way of life, now and in decades past, for Western eyes….