Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Shadow Land

The “shadow land” is Bulgaria, and the story involves a young American woman visiting because she and her brother, long dead, would pick it out on the globe they played with as children. But as a first-time visitor, she soon plunges into Bulgaria’s dramatic history and sees many things in a new light. The action begins when the visitor takes a stranger’s bag by mistake, and it turns out to be someone’s ashes. The Shadow Land was published earlier this month by Ballantine Books. Author Elizabeth Kostova will be at Politics and Prose in DC tomorrow, Saturday, April 22, 2017, at 6pm. You can purchase her book there or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

WHEN ALEXANDRA opened the urn, she began to cry not because she was afraid of human remains but because it was just too much, the last straw. She was in a strange country, she was exhausted, her plans had already gone awry, and in the dramatic way of the young she felt herself in the grip of something larger—destiny, or some plot that could as easily be evil as good.

She had to shake the driver’s shoulder and cry out “Stop!” a couple of times before he turned to look at her, scanned her stricken face, and pulled rapidly through the Sofia traffic to a side street. A couple of kittens and a mangy cat scattered as the taxi halted at the curb; Alexandra saw they had been eating something bloody there. The area was shaded by big trees that she couldn’t have known yet were lipa—lindens, with

their masses of upside-down greenish blooms. This street was weirdly quiet after the big boulevard and the hotel. Alexandra waited, trying to stifle her sobs, while the driver put the car in park and left the engine running.

“Is there a problem?” he said. She wondered how he knew such clear English, and why he hadn’t used it earlier.

“Please,” she said. “I’m sorry—I’m sorry, but I have somebody else ’s luggage here.”

It was too fast for him, apparently, or her voice was shaking too much. He frowned at her. “What? Are you okay?”

“Yes, but I have somebody’s bag.”

“Somebody?” he said. He craned over the back of the seat. She pointed, wordless now, and patted the object.

Author Elizabeth Kostova. / Photo by Lynne Harty Photography.

 “This is not yours?” He looked hard at her, rather than at the bag—could that be a Bulgarian characteristic, the business of checking a person’s face for clues before getting into the situation itself? The tall man had done that with her, too, but perhaps it was because she was a foreigner.

Next he got out of the driver’s seat and came around to her door. He opened it and leaned in to examine the pile of luggage. “Whose bag?” he said.

She looked at him harder, too, because he was so close to her. In that moment, she saw him for the first time not in his commercial function, her ride to a hostel, but as a person, a man not much older than she—maybe twenty-nine, or at most in his early thirties. She saw again that he had a square pale face and that his light hair fell forward to obscure it when he bent over. His eyes were indeed blue, true blue, not blue-green. He was not large, and there was a grace to his movements, his thin hands.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “How did this happen?”

“I took it from the man on the steps at the hotel, those old people. The tall man and the old man in the wheelchair, and an old woman.” She tried to speak distinctly.

“You stole their bag?” He shot her a look, more of surprise than disapproval. She understood that he had seen the old people, too, as they made their painful way out of the hotel.

“No.” She felt tears prick again. “I took it by accident when I helped them get into their taxi. But I think it is—look.”

She opened the lid of the urn and showed him the plastic sack inside. He leaned in closer—she felt she must be thoroughly puzzling him now—and touched it, as she had. He frowned. She watched his fingers searching for a sign from the box, as hers had, exploring the outside of the polished wood. He peeled back the velvet bag and this time she saw that the carved border was a wreath of leaves, with the head of an animal on each side. He found the name before she could show it to him, and read it aloud.

“I think this is a person,” he said. “It was a person—a man.”

“I know,” she said, remembering the figure in the wheelchair. The image made her face feel weak. Maybe the old man had lost his other son? Or his brother?

“Do you understand? This is the body of someone,” the taxi driver repeated.

“I know,” she said. “Not the body, the ashes.”

—Elizabeth Kostova

Excerpted from The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova. Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Kostova. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a Penguin Random House company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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