Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

An American teacher comes to Sofia, Bulgaria, to teach his mother tongue to students who hope to find a better life abroad with a good knowledge of the world language. While the work is satisfying, his love life has become a lot more complicated since homosexuality is not something that is openly shown in the eastern European country. In a Portuguese exchange student, he finds his love, but things are complicated with the countries’ economies struggling and offering not much to foreigners.

The narrator finds himself in a surrounding which differs a lot from his life before, he roams the streets of Sofia discovering and re-discovering old and mysterious places, being lost physically and emotionally. The political and economic situation aren’t easy either which makes it hard for him to fully enjoy his time in this country of wild nature and rich history.

Greenwell definitely has an eye for the details, e.g. the wind playing outside or hitting the windows and smoothly running over his characters’ backs and brilliantly captures his protagonist’s emotional state. Even though the chapters are often like independent episodes, together they form a complete picture. Just like them, all the narrator experiences are pieces of a mosaic that are unique when look at closely, but you have to take a step back to get the full picture.

Some very interesting observations put in a beautiful language, yet, the mass of explicit scenes annoyed me a bit, a lot of it could have been left to the readers’ imagination.

Elizabeth Kostova – The Shadow Land

Elizabeth Kostova – The Shadow Land

After the loss of her beloved brother, Alexandra Boyd is listless and drifting. Having completed her studies and worked some time in a library, she decides to enrol for a teaching programme far away and thus she ends up in Sofia, Bulgaria. After a long and arduous journey across the ocean, she only wants to get to her apartment. Waiting for a taxi, she is helping an elderly couple who struggle with their luggage, but when Alexandra finally sits down in a cab herself, she realized that she has one of these people’s bags with her. She has a look at the bag and finds an urn with the name Stoyan Lazarov in it. Since the police are reluctant to help her, she and her taxi driver decide to find the people and return the remains of Stoyan. What starts as an accidental swapping of bags, leads to a journey across Bulgaria and the dark history of the country.

What I really liked about the novel was the fact that you get an unexpected mixture of a mystery story, a bit of romance, the history and culture of an east European country, the life history of a dedicated musician and notion of Bulgaria which is not very well known by many people. Yet, as a consequence, it is not easy to come to a conclusion about it. What I appreciated most were first of all the fairy tales and myths about Bulgaria. I have never been there and always imagined it as a country deeply rooted in its history and legends. Kostova perfectly managed to integrate these into her novel. Second, having the characters travel around the country gave her the chance of introducing the country’s fascinating landscape to the reader. Not only the larger and old cities of Sofia and Plovdiv, but also small villages in the mountain areas are part of the setting.

The mystery plot was a bit constructed to my liking. I cannot really imagine a young, innocent woman going to a really foreign country of which she hardly knows anything at all and especially of which cannot even speak the language, relying on strangers as Alexandra does. It was necessary for the action to send them from one place to the next, encountering different characters linked to the Lazarov family, but again, this is not really realistic. To be welcomed and accommodated once, ok, this is likely, but not making close friends with everybody within minutes. Much more interesting was the story of the dead man’s life, the oppression by the communists, his time in the work camp and particularly his love for music. He certainly is the most interesting character of the novel, above all in comparison to Alexandra who remains a bit shallow and flat throughout the whole story.

All in all, I believe the author has done a lot of research and gives us a multifaceted picture of Bulgaria now and then. I liked ready much of it, but admittedly, there are some longueurs in it, too.