The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova is a staggering, atmospheric, and mysterious novel, hitting the sweet spot between literary fiction and page-turner by portraying one woman’s fight to redeem with the backdrop of a mystical Bulgaria. It’s contemporary writing at its finest. It evokes the bestselling achievements of other works of literature in recent years. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, and of course Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend all spring to mind – the kingpin of these novels, of course, being the breath-stealing power of their writers to translate the spirit of a place into their art.
And coming off the back of The Historian, which sold over three million copies, there’s no doubt that Elizabeth Kostova knows exactly what she’s doing.
In the year 2008, Alexandra Boyd steps off an airplane and into Sofia, Bulgaria, where a baggage mix-up finds her clutching an urn filled with someone’s cremated ashes. After encountering a sympathetic taxi driver, she sets out to return the urn to its owner, but the mystery swiftly deepens as she follows the trail of its owner. But she ignores early warning signs, such as being locked in a monastery’s basement, and keeps moving onwards into further danger.
With Bobby, the young charismatic cab driver, as her companion, Alexandra move closer to the truth – but is this cheerful Bulgarian man the genuine, carefree helper he appears to be? Or is something in motion that Alexandra doesn’t quite understand? Something bigger than she could’ve imagined?
Running alongside this narrative is a story from Alexandra’s past: the disappearance of her brother Jack. After an argument on a family hike, Jack storms away from Alexandra, and no one sees him again. She wears the guilt of his vanishing through her university years, where she studies creative writing and English literature. Her parents get divorced. She relishes in dead romances and fleeting relationships, enjoying most ‘breaking up with them, the look on their faces when I asked them not to call me again, the light going out of their eyes.’
We come to understand that Alexandra has travelled to Bulgaria not only to teach English but also to escape from the ghosts of her past – but the process of her convalescence swiftly becomes a quest to discover the truth, one that is tied to the darkest moments of Bulgaria’s history, a darkness that doesn’t want to be found.
The revealing of the mystery interwoven through Kostova’s story is handled with wisdom and grace, creating a literary page-turner plump with suspense, historical scope, and beauty. It portrays the experience of loss and discovery at every turn and lives up to the legacy of Kostova’s previous novel The Historian with the recalcitrance of ambitious novelists. The Shadow Land is Kostova’s shout that she can create a story just as big and punchy and immersive as she did before.
Elizabeth Kostova is the internationally bestselling author of The Historian, which sold over three million copies, and The Swan Theives. She lives in the US.