The spirit of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness hovers above Elizabeth Kostova’s haunting new novel ... Kostova builds her characters with skill and patience, making them both fully human and deeply humane ... As Kostova brings her riveting tale to a climax, weaving effortlessly between Lazarov’s past and Alexandra’s present, we discover both a superb storyteller and a subtle moralist.
Between the eerie landscape — concrete high-rises, smudgy horizons, unknown flora hanging above cobblestoned streets — and the curious people dogging their every move, the suspenseful parts work. What doesn't work, and it pains me to say this as so much of the book is good, is the backstory of Alexandra's brother, Jack...That's not because the writing is awkward in the backstory scenes, but because the book's beating heart is in Bulgaria, and each time we stray back to Alexandra's family in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we lose that focus. Fortunately, there are compensations. In the second part of the novel, several chapters go back to Stoyan Lazarov and his enigmatic sister-in-law Irina Georgievna's life during World War II, and in these, Kostova captures not just the rhythms of Bulgaria's everyday past, but its proud and uneven political history, too ... When Kostova focuses on that beauty, through characters' reminiscences, folktales, poetry, and news, her book transcends its covers and offers readers a glimpse of her own heart.
...a narrative that lies somewhere between a tourist guide, an account of a point-to-point rally across Bulgaria and a shaggy-dog story ... Events continue to unfold or, more precisely, collapse, and the denouement does not account at all for why it arrived by such a tortuous and frustrating route.
A compelling and complex mystery, strong storytelling, and lyrical writing combine for an engrossing read ... A parallel story line tells of Lazarov’s life. His attempt to become a concertmaster by currying favor with his orchestra’s Communist conductor has tragic consequences, setting up Kostova’s most emotional and harrowing moments.
While picaresque hero Bobby steals the readers’ hearts, the romance Kostova drums up for Alexandra elsewhere and the back story of her guilt over a dead brother feel shoehorned into the novel, pallid in comparison to the drama of Bulgarian politics over the last 70 years. Kostova’s passion and tragic sense of history, along with jewellike character studies, almost make up for the overplotting and repetitiveness as she drums her points home.