Friday, December 26, 2008

Review: The Historian

Earlier this month in a post on the Books of 2008, I had mentioned that I was reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005). I finished it last night. The book is another contribution to vampire lore, although in many ways it fits more in line with Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and less with Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat (1985). Indeed, at times I felt like there were elements of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) at play here as well (fortunately, Kostova's writing is much stronger than Brown's). The primary narrator is a scholar who recounts her own experience as a teenaged girl in the 1970s. She recounts how after finding in her father's library mysterious papers related to Vlad the Impaler, the historical Dracula from the late 15th century, her father had told her about his own research and that of his mentor/advisor at university who disappeared after researching the real Dracula as well. This interest becomes in truth an obsession, as each person who has received a mysterious book with a woodblock print of Dracula as a dragon becomes enthralled to discover another piece in the great story about where exactly Dracula is buried and if he is still alive. And, yes, each encounters vampiric activity along the way. The story becomes layered, with narrative voices relaying other narrative voices, and moves backwards through time from the 1970s to the 1950s to the 1930s, ultimately to the late 1400s. Despite what the book jacket on my paperback copy of the novel says, if you're looking for a thriller about vampires, this really isn't it. Rice more successfully wove stories that incorporated philosophy, religion, sexuality, morality, history, and violence in the guise of vampires that kept you on edge and turning page after page. Kostova's book follows more the pattern of Stoker's work, although if memory serves me correctly, even Stoker's version had more thrills at times.

This isn't to say that The Historian is a bad book. On the contrary, Kostova's writing is wonderful. Her descriptions are detailed, which I appreciate, and the book reads like historical fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of Paul and Helen's visit in the 1950s to places like Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria, in particular because this is during the days when Eastern Europe was Communist and Americans were not welcome. The unfolding of history as each character uncovers some other piece of the mysterious puzzle about Dracula's burial location makes for an interesting read. I found myself especially interested in the descriptions of the historical Vlad the Impaler and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. The book involves libraries and archives so much that I almost thought the book should have been called The Librarian, but that might have caused confusion with the trilogy of action movies starring Noah Wyle. Kostova's panoply of characters is not unlike a Charles Dickens novel, where even less important characters are given their fair share of descriptions and contributions to the main storyline. The Bulgarian peasant woman Baba Yanka who sings folk songs and the Turkish professor Turgut Bora are beautifully written characters, but one of my favorites (I'm smirking as I write this) has to be the "evil librarian."

The Historian moves slowly, but that is part of Kostova's intent. Here's a sample from page 100-101 that I think conveys the tone of the book without revealing anything; the narrator is the unnamed daughter who is listening to her father's story:

I uncurled my cold hand from the edge of the bench and made the effort to be lighthearted now, too. When had it become effort? I wondered, but it was too late. I was doing his work for him, distracting him as he had once tried to distract me. I took refuge in a slight petulance--not too much or he would suspect it. "I have to say I'm hungry again, for real food."

This dedication to a slow-paced tale allows the reader to get into the characters and the storyline. Indeed, this ultimately serves a purpose: by slowly telling the tale, Kostova allows the story to unfold in such a way as to make the vampire part of it more believable. This, added to the successful historical component, make for a fascinating read. Still, as far as the plot was concerned, sometimes there were just too many coincidences and there never seemed to be a wrong turn as the story unfolds. Although I looked forward to sitting down to read the book each day, it didn't have me on the edge of my seat like I initially had hoped. So if you're interested in an alternative version of the Dracula story and you enjoy historical fiction, then this book is for you. But if you're looking for suspense and thrills, you may want to hold off on this for now.

1 comment:

Jana said...

Wow, Roberto. What a fab review. I guess I'm going to have to read this, although I have just about zero interest in vampires. I do, however, have lots of interest in history... so this seems -- after reading this very well-written review--to be a book I will *have* to read. Who knew?