Elizabeth Kostova is an author of place. When I read The Historian, which I highly recommend to any fan of history, travel, and a dash of the supernatural, I was besotted with Eastern Europe. Her vivid descriptions of the intersection between East and West in places like Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest and her journey into the mountains of Slovenia, made me heartsick for places I’d never been. In The Shadow Land, it’s Bulgaria’s turn in the spotlight. Set in the 1990s, immediately after the fall of Communism in Bulgaria, Kostova uses this work of fiction as a thoughtful memorial and love letter to her husband’s home-country. Unfortunately, the page-turning anticipation and poetic, evocative settings she creates in The Historian are missing: The Shadow Land falls flat.
The personal loss of the main character, Alexandra, doesn’t inform the story in the way Kostova apparently intends. Rather, the continued references to that tragic past feel forced and distracting. From the beginning, it’s unclear if Alexandra functions as the anchor of the story and its heroine or a more passive narrative vehicle. Kostova gives us a rich cast of characters but doesn’t allow us to connect with them on a personal level.
Nonetheless, The Shadow Land wasn’t a Bad Book. I was intrigued and invested. While I skimmed a bit leading up to the end, the last few chapters are easily the strongest part of the novel. I still recommend The Shadow Land to fans of Kostova’s previous work, readers who like a slowly paced travel mystery, and those with a very strong interest in Bulgaria or post-WWII Soviet History, specifically.