Alexandra Boyd, a young American woman, arrives in Sofia, Bulgaria to work as a teacher. On her first day, after a brief friendly encounter with a family outside the wrong hotel, she finds that the satchel belonging to the family was left in her taxi. Inside is an ornately carved wooden box, an urn, containing the ashes of a loved one. And there is a label attached indicating the ashes are those of one Stoyan Lazarov.
The Shadow Land
by Elizabeth Kostova
2017 / 496 pages
read by Bernie Kreinik 18h 36m
rating 7 / contemp fiction
Alexandra’s older brother Jack was an important influence in Alexandra’s young life, growing up on a farm in North Carolina with teacher parents and then in town. He was a trouble maker, but always fun and loving. And he died suddenly and Alexandra feels partly to blame although his death was several years prior.
So we have two plot threads – 1. The ashes have to be returned of course, but how? And 2. Jack has been missing from a family hike for years – probably dead, but that’s not totally clear. These chapters alternate until we realize that Alexandra is in Bulgaria in part, deep in her heart, to remember Jack because she’s still grieving and has been in serious emotional pain for years.
After a rather brief but scary visit to the police she and her smart and English speaking taxi driver, Bobby, now a kind of interested and very helpful friend, head to a monastery outside of Sofia. This would be the logical place for an urn of ashes to be delivered. but there has been no word of the family they seek. While at the monastery they get locked into a room – possibly deliberately. The tension mounts.
Bobby is very mysterious in his willingness to drive Alexandra around looking for the Lazarov family who lost their urn. He has problems with the police department and it turns out his “real” job is being an activist for environmental causes and other political issues. He acts kind of like a detective and Alexandra is a bit suspicious on several levels.
Alexandra takes photos and asks questions – in one sense this is almost a travelogue. In fact , the NPR review says it is a “strange odessy through Bulgaria.”
Bobby and Alexandra visit the small village where the police chief directed them but the family isn’t home – a conversation with the neighbors only makes things more mysterious.
Bobby, who is gay (so there is no romance) and Alexandra travel around visiting other family members in their search for the rightful owner of the urn. Being cremated was unusual for Stoyan’s generation, but apparently he died two years prior. The friendship between Bobby and Alexandra grows and is quite enjoyable.
Part 2 of the book starts in May, 1940 at Sofia Central Station –
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulgaria#Third_Bulgarian_state (more recent history of Bulgaria)
Now the other plot thread: Stoyan Lazarov, the man whose ashes are in the urn, is a violinist, who has just returned to Sofia from Vienna after many years away. At this point the Germans have taken Austria in WWII. He plays exquisitely and meets Vera whom we know from Part 1 will become Stoyan’s wife.
Back to 2015 (?) – Someone wants to stop Bobby and Alexandra for some reason – the police? They visit with Irina Georgievna, Vera’s sister who provides a lot of background on Bulgaria and its history as well as tells a couple folktales, apparently what Kostova was studying when she met her Bulgarian husband. (This makes me want to write something similar about Finland.)
A diary belonging to Stoyan is found at the bottom of the urn, but some pages are missing. Vivaldi is not mentioned in what they found. The search continues.
I was a bit irritated at first by the change in story from that of Alexandra in present times to that of Stoyan in the 1940s on. The change grew on me and before long I fully appreciated both threads – I just wasn’t prepared for Bulgarian labor camps. I also appreciated the author’s note.