Bulgaria. How little thought I had ever given to Bulgaria, but here it is in the vivid, fast-paced, fascinating new novel The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova. Author of the best-selling novel The Historian, Kostova is a writer who knows how to keep you in suspense, to frighten and amaze you, all while building characters whose fate will matter to you more and more as she reveals a whole country, its history, its tragedy, its politics, its scenery and its sad beauty.
The novel opens in contemporary Bulgaria, where Alexandra, a young American who has arrived in the country's capital of Sofia to teach English, is dropped off at her hotel from the airport. Immediately the adventure that will change her life forever begins. Three people--an older woman, a man in a wheelchair and their son--are coming down the steps to get into a taxi. She offers to hold their bags as they settle in and as the taxi drives off, she realizes that one of the bags has been left in her hand. She opens it to find a burial urn and immediately jumps into a taxi to return the ashes. The driver, Bobby, becomes her guide through a country with a strange and troubled past. The more we know of it, the more we fear for our heroine and the more we understand the darkness that lurks behind the most civilized of cultures, a place where citizens can listen to Vivaldi one night and perish in labor camps the next.
Alexandra has experienced her own trauma: Her brother disappeared while on a family hike in the mountains when he was 15. Grief is her constant companion as she and Bobby travel to small sea towns and villages high in the mountains across the country looking for the urn's owners. Gradually, the duo learns the urn contains the ashes of a deceased musician named Stoyan Lazarov. And as the story of his life unfolds, so too does a tale of state terror and the cruelty of the petty rulers of a communist system rife with corruption and viciousness.
There is love in this novel, and the characters grow and bind together in wonderful ways. There are old people and young ones and a loyal dog who knits the generations together; there are acts of kindness and moments of sweet gendeness that surround the most painful revelations. Descriptions of Bulgaria hold your attention, and the plot pulls you along from page to page, kindling a desire to see the characters home safely and the mystery unraveled. The police and others pursue the ashes of the violinist, and...