Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Shadow Land

Title:  The Shadow Land
Author:  Elizabeth Kostova
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2017. 496 pages.
ISBN:  0345527860 / 978-0345527868

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Sofia, the year 2008"

Favorite Quote:  "People seem to believe that despair is the same as anguish, but it is not. It's true that despair is surrounded by anguish, but at its core, despair is silent, a blank page."

The Shadow Land brings to life a part of history and a part of the world about which I have read very little - Bulgaria in the aftermath of World War II. In 2008, a young American woman Alexandra comes to Sophia on a trip of remembrance and healing. She has no connections with the country and knows no one there. However, as children, she and her brother Jack used to dream of other places, and Bulgaria was Jack's place on the globe. So, Alexandra comes to remember Jack and reconcile with his disappearance as a teenager.

An accidental meeting leaves Alexandra holding the bag, literally. She finds herself in possession of an urn of ashes from a family she runs into outside of a hotel. She has no idea who they are, but she does understand what the urn means. The idea of the family losing that commingles with her own grief and sets her on a path to find the family and return what must obviously be very precious to them.

A chance puts her into the cab of driver Bobby. He in turn gets involved in Alexandra's quest to return the urn. This leads them both to places, times, and a history they could not have imagined.

The ashes are of Stoyan Lazarov. His story is of the communist regime in Bulguria from the 1940s to the 1960s. His story is one of death and deprivation in the forced work camps for individuals accused of crimes against the nation. The impact of the regime continues today.

The first half of the book proceeds with the story of the present and the past moving independently. As a reader, I know that the stories will connect, but am unsure how. At this juncture, the story of the past is the more emotional and moving one, but the story of the present is what moves the plot forward.

Interestingly, the book centers on and revolves around Alexandra and her quest to return the run, but she is somewhat superfluous to the main story itself. The history does not involve her or anyone she is connected to, and even in the present, she is an outsider with a view on this culture and political situation. The story of her grief over her brother begins the book but is not resolved. It becomes instead a venue to tell the bigger story of the tragedy of the work camps.

The book is written as a narrative, especially the sections dealing with the past; much of it is a story being told as opposed to a story unfolding. This is noticeable at the beginning of the book but fades as the intensity on the narrative grows. Ultimately, the story of the past shifts to a first person account, which accentuates the impact of the horror.

The further the book progresses, the closer the past and present come until they ultimately collide. Some of the connections are a surprise, but the kind that make you go, "Of course, that makes sense." The book is a slow beginning but builds to a dramatic conclusion that has me turning pages late into the night to finish.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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