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Putting away childish tales of dark mythology: Twentieth Century History has darker shadows

the-shadow-landOnce I had let go of my expectations and the still resonant allure of Kostova’s first novel, The Historian, I surrendered totally to a tale far darker, and far more needing-to-be-told, a warning note echoing beyond the pages of fiction

I started this, given the setting, and the publisher blurb : “From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country” with an erroneous assumption that those ‘dark secrets’ would be, like The Historian, some of the ones from myth and long ago times. Particularly as, deliberately or not, there are a few hints and reminders which might indicate that we could be in Undead territory. Instead, what unfolds is something far more serious, far more potent, far more relevant, reminding us that tales of myth, magic and legend may perhaps be curious and safe entertainment, fantasy horrors, protecting us from the real horrors which we visit on each other in the name of ideology

Set in the first decade of this century, Alexandra Boyd, a young American woman with the desire to be a writer, and with a tragedy in her own past, arrives in Bulgaria, a country with a personal resonance from her childhood, in order to take up a teaching/study assignment.

Boyd has an accidental tangle with a charismatic older man and his two elderly companions, on her first arrival. In seeking to help the elderly couple, clearly in some difficulty, get a taxi, and help the three to load their various bags into the taxi, Boyd finds to her horror that she seems to have mixed up one of their bags, with her own. In a strange country, without knowing the language, she does not quite know what to do, how to find the threesome, how best to get the missing luggage back to them. Although clearly a kindly young woman, she is also mesmerised by the English speaking man accompanying the elderly couple, so this fires her desire to find the trio and return the missing item, one which is unusual, and highly significant.

He was a very good man who thought he was a very bad man. That is a -difficult combination…..Sometimes – sometimes we know a person who is a very bad man but who thinks he is a good man. Maybe that is even more bad. Even worse. Worse, because the bad man, who thinks he is good, thinks that he can do anything to anybody

Boyd engages a waiting taxi driver, a rather mysterious one, who not only speaks English, but is curiously willing to help her………….

Sofia and Vitosha Mountain

                           Sofia and Vitosha Mountain

And thus unfolds a mystery, where nothing is going to be quite what it seems (including this reader’s assumptions about ‘Bulgaria’s dark secrets’ The twentieth century, unfortunately, is full of dark secrets, most around politics, systems, ideologies and regimes: the pursuit of power and the lengths some will go to achieve it.

I have often thought that the terrible thing in communism was not just that we turned against each other. It was that we turned away from each other

Having started this in the hope of some kind of intelligent, beautifully written page turner about mythic, medieval history, and a modern woman on a search for a legendary, imaginative past, to help distract me from the present, I found instead something which made me wonder more about a future I hope we are not travelling towards, with various unprincipled, ferociously egotistic men occupying political power at this time.

I think young people now don’t know much about those times, or don’t understand – they think it’s always been as it is now, the mobile phones and friends on the Internet and lots of people going to other countries to work

I found, for sure, an intelligent, beautifully written page turner about all too real history: the shadow of the last war, the shadow of the communist bloc, and some of those who moved into power (and where from) after the Berlin wall came down.

There is a lot in here which recounts that horrific history, as Kostova pursues a tale which is at times in two times – the early fifties, and the first decade of the twentyfirst century. It is excellently done, and even though the story takes a little while to get its real momentum going, it is quietly gripping from the start – and then relentlessly gripping. There are some real surprises too. Nor is the story unremittingly dark. As ever, human heart, the kindness within, and the various redemptive paths humankind take to try and walk away from our shadows, is a kind of compass to true North. And art is one of those needles for true North – music, visual art, literature, poetry especially – a search for transcendence and life of the spirit.kostovaelizabeth

And, in the end, I think Kostova has here, written something more powerful.

The traditional music of Bulgaria is not an integral part of this book, but I can’t resist a chance to include it. An extraordinary tradition, suffused with sadness, laced with aliveness

I received this as an ARC from the publisher, via NetGalley. And it is published on April 11th

The Shadow Land Amazon UK
The Shadow Land Amazon USA