It’s been 12 years since Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, was first released. It was an instant best-seller, received with much acclaim. For me, it’s been one of those books I’ve picked up many times and yet never read. The same went for her second novel The Swan Thieves. Sometimes these books just pass you by, don’t they? Maybe it’s your mood when you’re in the book store, or where you are in life. More often than not it’s simply a matter of time – a lack thereof.
Elizabeth’s latest release however, caught my eye almost immediately. The blurb suggested a mystery, a coming-of-age story and historical fiction, and this book is all of those.
The Shadow Land is the story of Alexandra Boyd, a young woman who travels to Bulgaria from the U.S. to come to terms with the loss of her brother in her early teens. Bulgaria fascinated them both as children, so Alexandra has lined up a job there teaching English. The day she arrives, mere moments after she’s been taken to a hotel from the airport, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and inadvertently holds onto one of their bags.
Alexander discovers that the bag contains human ashes, which the couple was surely taking to bury somewhere. The only clues she has are a photograph she took, the name on the urn – Stoyan Lazarov – and an off-hand comment that they were travelling to a nearby monastery. She enlists the help of a grumpy young taxi driver who insists she call him Bobby. Like Stoyan, Bobby turns out to be so much more than what he seems at first.
Alexandra and Bobby embark on a journey that takes them across Bulgaria in search of a family whose lives had been so impacted by Bulgaria’s communist-era past that, decades later, they’re still running from it.
To be honest, before reading The Shadow Land, there wasn’t much I could tell you about Bulgaria, except that it was somewhere in Eastern Europe and was, for a period of time, a communist country allied with the Soviet Union. I have a vague memory of Bulgaria being involved in the Cold War from my International Politics unit during my university days. Something like that anyway.
The Shadow Land opened my eyes to the impact of communism more effectively than any university unit. It brought it to life for me through the eyes of Stoyan Lazarov and those he loved. Isn’t it just amazing the way fiction can do this? So many times in my life people have tried to tell me you can only truly learn from non-fiction, from text books, criticism and first-hand accounts. Fiction, they say, is just a story, an escape from reality. But fiction brings history to life in a way non-fiction often struggles to do. It brings depth, context and emotion to what could otherwise be dry facts spouted monotonously by a bored university professor.
I’m grateful to Elizabeth Kostova for bringing this aspect of history to life for me in a way that’s engaging, beautifully detailed and rich with emotion. I’ll be going back to look at her other books now for sure.