Rated Reads

The Shadow Land

by Elizabeth Kostova

Rated: Moderate

Twenty-six-year-old Alexandra Boyd has arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, to teach English. The death of her brother a decade earlier in her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina still weighs on her, and their shared fascination with the country of Bulgaria from an atlas they grew up looking through is the main reason she wound up in this particular foreign land.

She is dropped off mistakenly by the taxi from the airport at a nice hotel, rather than at the hostel where she reserved a room, and there she runs into a small group of Bulgarians whose lives end up changing the trajectory of her own. She helps carry some bags for a middle-aged man and a much-older woman and man as they are trying to get a taxi, and after she gets a taxi of her own to go to the hostel, she realizes one of their small bags ended up with her. Even more worrisome is that as she looks into the bag Alexandria realizes it holds an urn with someone’s ashes in it. Thus begins a kind of wild goose chase through the country to catch up with the people to return the urn. And as she and her helpful taxi driver, Asparuh, a youngish man who speaks English and likes to call himself “Bobby,” spend day after day going to different villages, they learn more about the man whose ashes are in the urn and the wife and son he left behind.

The story of Stoyan Lasparov unfolds a bit at a time to Bobby and Alexandra and to readers, and it starts to be apparent that something in his life has sparked the interest of someone dangerous, who is following Bobby and Alexandra and leaving increasingly threatening messages. But they cannot rest until Stoyan’s remains are returned to his family and allowed to rest in peace. His story becomes important to Bobby and Alexandra, and in the book it is a representation of the story of thousands of real people over the course of a few decades of communist rule in Bulgaria, people who for one reason or another drew the attention of the government and were summarily taken and dispatched to prison camps where they worked for years in deplorable conditions.

The Shadow Land was fairly slow reading for me, and for the first third I really didn’t know where it was headed; it was just about at that mark that Stoyan’s story really began. But I eventually got an idea of the big picture and started to get into the stories of the characters. By the end, I was appreciative of the characters and their stories, who began to feel real to me, and I appreciated the opportunity to learn about the country of Bulgaria and its history in the 20th century.

Rated: Moderate. There are five or six uses of strong language and a few other uses of milder language. There’s really no sexual content. Violence includes a few incidences of shootings but not much detail and descriptions of work camps that are horrific. Men are given hardly anything to eat, their living conditions are worse than squalid, and they are treated like animals. Details in themselves aren’t really bad, but the knowledge that these places existed is the worst part.

* I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 15 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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shadow land
  • The Shadow Land
  • by Elizabeth Kostova
  • Rated: Moderate
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: