Why would North Carolinian Elizabeth Kostova, who is a New York Times No.1 bestselling author, set her action-packed novel in Bulgaria?
The main character of “The Shadow Land,” Kostova’s new book, is a young North Carolina mountain woman named Alexandra Boyd. On her first day in the country she meets a small Bulgarian family group. They tell her they are on the way to a beautiful monastery and suggest she consider visiting it later. After they part ways, Alexandra finds that she has a satchel that belongs to the Bulgarian group.
A young taxi driver called Bobby befriends her as she seeks to find the satchel’s owners. In the satchel is a wooden urn, containing ashes and inscribed with the name “Stoyan Lazarov.” She and Bobby report the incident to the local police, who then give them an address for Lazarov.
Alexandra and Bobby rush to the monastery to search for the Bulgarian group, but find no one. As they prepare to leave, they realize that they have been locked in a room. Alexandra thinks, “Nothing in her previous experience had prepared her for the feeling of being suddenly locked in a monastic room with a stranger five thousand miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains, holding an urn containing the ashes of another stranger. In addition to being tired and afraid, she was suddenly a thief, a vagrant and a prisoner.”
Although they escape from the monastery, they cannot escape a growing awareness that they are being followed and that possessing this urn has put them in danger. Nevertheless, the next day they go to the address the police had provided. The house is empty of people, but photos and papers there confirm that the owners of the urn had lived there. A neighbor gave them another address elsewhere in Bulgaria.
Before they leave town, they adopt a stray dog, which becomes an important character with a major role in one of the concluding scenes. Kostova introduces other people, including an older, wealthy businessman-turned-politician named Kurilkov and known as “The Bear.” He is seeking to win the next election on the promise of “non-corruption.”
There are growing and inexplicable dangers: vandalized cars, threats, murder and kidnapping. Only if the urn contains some valuable secret can there be an explanation for this unsettling situation. That explanation of the urn’s secret and its dangerous value becomes the spine on which Kostova builds the book’s surprising and violent resolution.
On that same spine she attaches another story, that of Stoyan Lazarov, a talented violinist, lover of Vivaldi, loving husband and father, who ran afoul of Bulgaria’s post-World War II brutal communist dictatorship. He was confined for many years in a torturous labor camp where work conditions and weather almost killed him and destroyed his health and his prospects for a fulfilling musical career.
At the work camp, he met two men, one a friend and fellow inmate, the other a guard who becomes a heated enemy. Both characters play a major part in the book’s dramatic conclusion.
Why then did Kostova set this book in Bulgaria? Explaining her fascination for that nation, she writes about her first visit, when she first came to “this mysterious country, hidden for so long behind the Iron Curtain,” and she felt, “I had somehow come home.”
Kostova’s novel takes her readers on a tour of Bulgaria, its mountains, its cities and villages its forests and seashores. Her poetic descriptions of Bulgaria’s landscapes and people made this reader want to see for myself the country she loves so much.