When my mother was in college, she dedicated two summers to month-long “work action” projects. These were voluntary initiatives to support the communist system in Yugoslavia. They spanned the summer, to avoid interrupting the school year, and they benefitted the neighboring communities. There are many people my mother’s age in former Yugoslavia who have never participated in a work action project.

Though Yugoslavia was a communist country, it was a different kind of communism because the country had politically separated itself from Russia. The way my mother tells it, if you weren’t too politically or religiously brazen, you were left alone. I naively thought other communist countries had a similar experience.

The Shadow Land tells its story in my favourite way; seemingly unrelated stories told at the same time until they intertwine. The story is about Bulgarian labor camps during the communist era. The story is about the truth coming to light. The story starts with a woman named Alexandra Boyd.

Alexandra chooses to go to Sofia, Bulgaria because of a geography game she and her brother Jack used to play; by going to Bulgaria, she honors him and his memory. Alex’s brother disappeared on a family hike when they were both in high school. His story was unfinished, his death assumed but body never found, and this shaped her adult life, the loss of him and the not knowing. A snippet from Alex’s perspective:

He was simply gone, and he took all our peace with him. (page 31)

In the same way, the not knowing shaped the lives of those whose partners, brothers and sons were taken to labor camps.

On Alex’s first day in Bulgaria, she accidentally takes a mysterious man’s luggage. In this luggage, she finds ashes and the name Stoyan Lazarov engraved on the wooden urn. The rest of the book is spent trying to return these ashes to the mysterious man. At the same time, alternating chapters tell the story of a violin player named Stoyan Lazarov and his life in communist Bulgaria. A snippet about Stoyan:

When he played that violin for us, I thought about his stories and the history he talked of, about paintings I had seen and books I had read. His violin made a smoky, mysterious sound. I heard it in the explosions of chestnuts cooking on a brazier at the edge of a river and horses clopping across cobblestones in Siena and Florence, and also the rustle of leaves that fell on Garibaldi’s troops as they marched. (page 157)

Alex befriends her cab driver, Bobby, and he accompanies her on her wild chase across the country. This part of the book was my favourite. There’s something to be said about travelling alone as a woman and putting your faith in a stranger. Bobby reads as a man with a good heart. As they’re getting to know each other, this exchange happens:

“Well, I go to a lot of demonstrations, not only environmental ones. It is time for us to have our country back. In my generation, we must take it back ourselves, for people to have better jobs, more normal cultural life, to act really part of Europe instead of feeling like –lost souls.” He buckled his seat belt.

“But you still haven’t told me what you do all day,” Alexandra said. “Although I know you drive thirty-five hours a week.”

He frowned. “No–now I am telling you what I believe all day, not what I do. ” (page 77)

As they spend more time together, their humour comes out. This exchange reminded me of being around my American friends and trolling them a bit:

“Cover your ears, Bird,” he told her. “I need to do some swearing.”

“If it’s in Bulgarian, it doesn’t matter,” she said. He swore a blue streak and she listened with interest. “What did you say?” she asked when he’d finished.

“I said to that driver that a cat should eat the organs of his mother.”

“Really?”

He laughed. “No–of course not. I said the usual stupid things, just like in English.”

As they make progress towards returning the ashes, the weight of the urn changes in Alexandra’s hands. When they’re making progress, she feels like it is light. When they hit a dead end, it feels heavy, like a burden. The weight of the urn is something Kostova often referred to throughout the book. It reminded me of a story.

Life coach Kathy Hadley shares a story about a psychologist who walks around a classroom with a partly filled glass of water but rather than asking her class if the glass is half full or half empty, she asks them how heavy it is. The lesson is that it doesn’t matter what the absolute weight of the glass is; what matters is how long you are asked to hold the glass. You can feel Alexandra’s arms getting weary.

The Shadow Land

Going back to Yugoslavia, there’s a lot about the country I don’t know despite having been born and raised there. When a country goes through sketchy political situations, the oppressed do not get a voice and as they are generally not the winners, history is not kind to their stories. Much of what I know about my country, I know from tribal knowledge, passed down by family and friends.

When I went back to Bosnia, well-after the war, we went white water rafting. It’s a five hour excursion, and you’re surrounded by some of the most lush forests and beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. Halfway through our trip, we stopped at a rocky beach to rest. Our rafting guide warned us not to go into the forest. The area still had active mines buried all throughout. He pointed to his scarred and malformed calf and told us he wasn’t joking. This passage felt like it knew me:

“I’ve always been interested in history,” he said. “But a country has many myths about itself  — mythology, mixed up with the history. Don’t you know a lot about your country, too? Or at least some myths?” (page 152)

I can’t recommend The Shadow Land highly enough. For the way it eases you into Bulgarian history, for the way it discusses politics in Eastern European countries and for the way it makes you feel something for Stoyan and his family.

The book begins with a beautiful passage that reminded me of my best friend Felix and that doesn’t quite make sense until after you’ve read the book (nonetheless, I had to include it here).

This book is a train with many cars, the old kind, moving clumsily along a track at night. One car contains a small supply of coal, which spills out into the passageway when an internal door is opened. You have to step over piles of slippery black grit to get through the corridor. Another car contains grain, shipped for export. One car is full of musicians and instruments and cheap overnight bags, nearly half an orchestra sitting according to their friendships and rivalries in the seats of the second-class compartments. Another car contains bad dreams. The final train car has no seats but instead is full of sleeping men, who lie crushed together on their coats in the dark.

The door to that one has been nailed shut from the outside.