The Shadow Land
Elizabeth Kostova, The Text Publishing Company, ISBN 978-1-925-49848-6, 479pp
There are two particular components that are required for a good novel. One is the tale itself, or the plot. It is about having something to say. The second is the telling of the tale. This is about the way in which the story engages the reader. It is about having a structure to the tale that will draw the reader in and carry him or her along. This book has a good tale. The plot is good and the characters are well formed. But it fails in the telling of that tale. The first half of the book works well, slowly drawing the reader into the character and motivations of the main protagonist, a young American woman called Alexander Boyd. The second half was disjointed as it struggled to provide the reader with all the information necessary to understand the plot.
The book is set in Bulgaria. Elizabeth Kostova is an American who married a Bulgarian; hence the surname and hence the setting. Apparently she studied Bulgarian folk music. Bulgaria was a Soviet satellite and suffered in the same way as most of the other Soviet satellites. It is a country of about seven million people and in one form or another has existed for well over a thousand years. Alexander Boyd arrives in Sofia to teach English and in the queue for a taxi ends up with a bag that is not hers. The story is about the contents of that bag and their connection with the Soviet regime and the Soviet labour camps in Bulgaria that were set up under Stalin. Alexander befriends a local taxi driver who is called Bobby (his real name is Asparuh Iliev but that is presumably too much for the average reader). Together they set off to return the bag and its contents to its rightful owner. In doing so they uncover the story of a Bulgarian musician, his family and his periodic detention in a Soviet labour camp. This is all linked to the contemporary rise of a politician who looks set to become the prime minister yet is clearly corrupt.
All the reviews I have read of this book are positive. They speak of being sucked in by the narrative, of a hypnotic yarn. These enthusiastic comments are perhaps justified by the first two parts of the book which occupy 268 of its 479 pages. But the final part (Part 3) of the book falls apart in what I found to be a disjointed narrative. Perhaps I am a lone voice; perhaps the real critics are right and this is a good book. But I did not find it so.