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Monday, April 10, 2017

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

The Shadow LandThe Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fast-paced and interesting the book takes place in post-Communist Bulgaria. There are several interwoven plots here, some of which were overlong. Basically, we are introduced to a young American woman, who has arrived in Sophia, Bulgaria to take a teaching position for a year or so. Her childhood and loss of a brother in his early teens is revealed to us so that we may understand her desire to visit this country and spend time exploring it. Her name is Alexandra Boyd. Not speaking the language well, she finds herself erroneously deposited at the door of one of the hotels in the city, rather than the hostel in which she has reservations. In the confusion of people coming and going, she bumps into a group of Bulgarians hurriedly leaving the hotel and entering a taxi which she herself had planned on taking. As they, being older and she, being polite, get into the cab with their bags and drive away, she realizes that one of their bags has gotten mixed in with hers. And thus the scene is set for the ensuing tale, in which Alexandra becomes acquainted with a local taxi driver, she calls Bobby, and their endless travels throughout the mountains and villages of Bulgaria in an attempt to locate this family. It turns out that the misplaced bag contains the cremains of a talented but relatively unknown violinist. The people who were carrying the urn were his son, his widow and an aged, wheelchair bound friend of the deceased.

At the outset, the pursuit of the family and the ensuing pursuit of Bobby and Alexandra by unknown people who vandalize their taxi and who also seem to be searching for the family, is intriguing. Who would want the ashes of a relatively obscure Bulgarian musician and why? Soon, however, when the search ranges many miles in various directions from Sophia and involves far too many relatives and acquaintances of the family, the mystery starts to raise plot questions that become distracting. Why would Bobby spend all this time aiding Alexandra, whom he calls Bird, in what appears to be a fruitless and unnecessary search? He tells her pretty early on that he is gay, probably in an attempt to assure her that he is not a threat to her, so there isn't a romantic angle. Why does she become so attached to him--maybe she sees in him the companion she lost when her brother died--that is at least plausible. But why is she so obsessed with the thought of the musician's son, whom she saw very briefly and fleetingly at the foot of the hotel steps?

By the time, the story gets around to the life of the musician, Stoyan Lazarov, the constant dead end trails of the search just about ends the desire to finish the overlong book. But, here the story becomes truly interesting--Stoyan's time in a Communist labor camp --the suffering, the abysmal conditions and the amazing methods the man uses to maintain his sanity and dignity as his body becomes more and more wasted is described in such excruciating detail that the reader's mind is battered with the cruelty of men on others while at the same time, amazed at the resiliency and strength of the victim. One cannot help but wonder how well he or she would survive physically, emotionally, mentally under the same conditions. This section of the book is the very best part and if the reader can get through the almost 300 pages to get there it is so worth it!

The end of the book is sort of a letdown--so far as the family, Alexandra and Bobby are concerned. I would have loved to have read the poem her wrote for her rather than just having it mentioned. And, Stoycho would have had a different end, too.

I received an ARC from Random House Readers' Circle in exchange for a review.

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