The Mystery of The Shadow Land


Historical fiction is one of the most powerful modes for introducing an era and culture to another generation.

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When it comes to suffering under the tyranny of a powerful regime, another era can develop within us an empathetic justice that fosters thanksgiving for the freedom we celebrate. Pretend pain in a real context provides a powerful story. Elizabeth Kostova’s latest fiction, The Shadow Land, does just that. A minor spoiler alert that can offer motivation to realize such pain by reading this book: the land of shadows is a gulag camp under the Bulgarian Communist regime.

Character Alexandra Boyd is an American teacher who arrives in Sofia only to be caught up immediately in a thrilling journey to discover the real Stoyan Lazarov, a remembered man whose urn of ashes she is found carrying. Her journey leads to encounters of both the beauty of the Bulgarian countryside and culture, as well as the ugliness of the political administration past and present. The past story of Stoyan unfolds alongside her discovery of the present political climate, as this past and the present are interwoven. Alexandra deals with her own anxieties and fears as she is forced to overcome her personal agenda in service to a family in need—a family of a gulag survivor, still tortured by the circumstances of the past.

As a non-specialist in gulags, Bulgaria, or the Eastern Block era, I found the exposure to this era
enlarging. In fact, the degree of human indignity of the worst of the communist regime in Eastern Europe provided me perspective on the overrated indignity frequently pronounced in contemporary America. This Memorial Day 2018 provides me a greater perspective of the lives lost in defense of values, principles viewed as greater than the personal lives given. The descriptions of the experiences of Sotyan Lazarov are powerful and graphic, deep and moving, and most of all shocking. Yet, history tells us of the reality of this historical fiction. This reality makes the unfolding power of this book a credit to author Elizabeth Kostova.

For readers who know her as author of The Historian, expectations should be set aside. This work has grounding in our twentieth century historical reality in a way not present in her better known work. The multiple perspectives require an attentive memory, but they provide a powerful illustration of historia, the process of how the past is investigated. “Investigation” is a key theme for the main character and “discovery” is the frightening result of Alexandra’s search. For the reader, the hope for burial of a recent hero becomes a yearning that seeks fulfillment throughout the work. When one realizes the author herself has been recognized by the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture for cultivating literature in the country, the pathos of Kostova flows recognizably from its pages. To read it is to feel it and to feel it is to love it.

As the mystery of The Shadow Land becomes clear, one’s conscience is outraged but one’s heart is content for the end of the journey for Alexandra and Stoyan.