Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Date Started: April 24, 2013 Date Finished: June 4, 2013
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★★
Worthy of Note: I had this book (among many others) on my Christmas list, and this one was the only one my brother could find, so he bought it for me. The thing is: I can’t for the life of me remember where I had heard/read about this book for it to get a place on the highly-coveted Amanda’s Christmas List. (Suck it, New York Times Bestsellers.) And given the content of the novel, the only conclusion I can come to is that Dracula made me do it.
One more thing, and this is more of a warning, really: This book takes a lot of cues from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I read in university. I was taking a class called Gothic Horror Prose and Film, and of course Dracula was on both the reading and viewing list. So my only encounter with Dracula – as much as I love it – was academic, and I’m afraid the technical tediousness of that might come through here. I’ll try not to write a university compare/contrast essay.
The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper.
Dracula and leaving creepy little books around for proteges to find: still a better love story than Twilight. Had to get that out of the way! (And I was worried this was going to get too academic…)
The Historian follows one group of people through the different times in their lives when they found themselves deep in the search for Dracula’s final resting place. Our head narrator and story-compiler travels with her father through Europe in the 1970s. Her father, Paul, tells and writes of his adventures in discovering and trying to solve the Dracula mystery in the 1950s. A third portion of the story comes from letters written in the 1930s by Professor Rossi, who comes to be Paul’s mentor decades later.
The Historian is part novel, part travelogue, a compilation of letters and postcards and narrative woven through different time periods and many different settings. It is a lot easier to follow than that sounds. Elizabeth Kostova, after ten years of working on this novel, is clearly an expert on her own story and I found it easy to get swept up, never coming to a jarring stop over some confusion. Though it may be easy to follow, The Historian is a daunting read. I didn’t realize how long it was until I was about halfway through and thought about just how much story I had consumed already. I am an epic-fantasy reader, so at over 900 pages, The Historian is not absurdly long to me – the thickness of a book only makes me worry about how it will fit in my bag. I think part of the substantiality of the novel is that you have to read and process every single word. To skip even a sentence of description in The Historian is to find yourself punished pages later, when that supposed minor detail comes back magnified.
And now for the rundown of gothic horror techniques. The Historian isn’t a horror novel, but when your subject matter is the Dracula myth and the very real atrocities committed by Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) in the 15th century, there’s going to be violent and unsettling scenes. The horror in this novel is much more in keeping with the gothic horror of the 17-1800s rather than today’s gore and torture porn standards. Any blood spilled is precious. Violence is witnessed with fear. Our heroes are academics, not vampire hunters. They may carry silver daggers and bullets with them, but their greatest weapons throughout the course of the story are their minds as they put themselves to work over hundreds of years of history, finding pieces of a puzzle scattered throughout the eastern and western world. These are my kind of detectives!
Most of the conflict comes not from the supernatural nature of their search, but from the real world. When the mystery takes Paul and Helen to Turkey, and then up into Eastern Europe, the tensions of international politics post-WWII and into the Cold War become their biggest hurdles. How do you ask for any help when almost everything you already know must be kept a secret? There is no escape from these modern realities, even as Paul and Helen travel to old monasteries, to small Balkan villages that keep these old ways even under USSR domination.
The thing that most haunted me that day, however…was the fact that these things had – apparently – actually occurred…For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history’s terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And once you’ve seen that truth – really seen it – you can’t look away.
The descriptions of scenery in The Historian are amazing in scope. To use my gothic horror book-learnin’, the settings are absolutely sublime. Everything, even ruins and castles with horrific pasts, is enchanting. You get the feeling that the age-old trees and mountains have witnessed centuries of human activity and still bear the memories. Though the main mystery to be solved involves Dracula the Vampire, most of the research and relic-hunting surrounds Vlad Tepes, the real man who fought real wars and spilled real blood. This means that the mystery can only be solved by searching through histories and letters of other real people. There is no all-knowing Van Helsing here. Dracula’s true resting place is a mystery to everyone Paul and Helen encounter. Save for a few telling letters and Rossi’s research from twenty years ago, Paul and Helen are on their own.
The Historian is equal parts gazing into the past and discovering that history can suddenly come hurtling towards you in the present. Throughout human history, we have invented ways to keep records, to leave marks of how things were, of what happened to us as civilizations and as individual people. The way The Historian is built, through several first-person accounts collected together, proves that the past was at one point the present, and that the two are not as separate as we are comfortable to believe.