Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

You know those memories that really aren't that important but they stay with you anyway? I had one of those regarding The Historian. I remember when it came out my freshman year of university because a friend of mine, Stephanie Wang, had gotten it from the store. I read the back and decided it sounded really interesting and was planning on borrowing it when she was done. Sadly, though, she told me it wasn't very good so I never ended up grabbing it off of her. Fast forward to two weeks or so ago and I saw the book in the library. I read the back again and still thought it sounded quite good. And then I realized the only reason I had for not reading it was that a girl I knew six years ago didn't like it. And that seemed silly so I picked it up.

The Historian tells the story of several generations of a family of historians as they track down vampires. Did I mention that vampires are in it? Because if you read the back of the novel, you have no idea. In fact, it takes about a hundred pages before you realize this is a book about vampires. I kind of loved that. I like when a book can be about something like vampires but not play that aspect up.

The primary narrator is an unnamed woman who writes in the introduction that she is writing about her own past. Really, the book takes place in about four different timelines. There is the initial modern day timeline which is only addressed in the introduction and epilogue. There is the mid 70s timeline, which for most of the book is the "modern day" timeline, following the woman as a young girl, learning about her father's past. There is the 1952 timeline, told in letters from the girl's father, explaining how their family got tied up into the whole mess and chronicling his search for his good friend and dissertation supervisor that may have been abducted by Dracula. And finally, there is the 1930 timeline, also told in letters and writings, following Professor Rossi (said dissertation supervisor) as a young man, investigating a bit too deep into the Dracula mythos.

I found this book absolutely thrilling. I don't know if it's the academic in me but the idea of racing through libraries and archives for the next clues and running against language barriers and lost monastery sites to be a refreshing and exciting plot device. There were times when I honestly could not put the book down as every time I decided to 'finish after one more chapter,' said chapter would end on a cliffhanger and I would have to read on. I read 350 pages in one sitting due to this 'problem.'

Another thing that is absolutely enchanting about this novel is the format its written in. By constantly switching narrators and mode of narration, it keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. I'm a big fan of epistolary novels and this book, although not completely one and with letters so long as to feel not very letter-y, uses them perfectly. Just the right amount of information is told in each letter. I particularly like that a lot of the romance is left out of one storyline and it simply reminds you that this is a letter written from a man to his daughter so of course he's going to leave out bits like that. It adds a human touch to what could be a very dry novel.

One more really well executed aspect of the book is the way it explores and plays with history. One of the characters remarks in the book that "for all my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history's terrible moments were real." This is one of the main themes of the book. While our heroine is referring to Vlad Tepes in that moment, what resonated more with me was the descriptions of Paul's (the father's) travels during the Cold War. The Cold War is something that I always vaguely know happened and can tell people about but it never really resonates. However, reading about how, as an American, Paul keeps having to get snuck around, getting sneaky visas and Communist escorts as he tries to visit Communist era Hungary and Bulgaria. It really made me think about how hard travel was back in the day, of the realities of what some people had to go through and how lucky we are that (with the exception of Cuba for us Americans, I suppose) the world has become a much freer place.

This isn't to say that there are no flaws in the book. There are a tremendous amount of characters, in all three major timelines, and it can become hard to keep track of who is who. I only got mixed up once that I can remember, having to flip back to remember why we were worried about the appearance of this guy, and all the characters do have very pronounced personalities. Its just all of the names, really, that can become mixed. The other thing that bugged me, and this is just personal, is that one figure that reoccurs a lot is never given a name and just referred to as 'the evil librarian.' Now, I get it the first time and I understand that they never really learned his name. It just takes away from the dramatic tension a bit when it's announced that standing at the end of the hall is 'the evil librarian.' It's hard to mask the giggle.

Now, when I went to look up the book on Goodreads after I finished, I was disheartened to see quite a few bad reviews. It seems that a lot of people thought the ending was a let down. Now, I didn't think that at all but I think I can see why people took it that way. This is not a book that's about action and, as such, doesn't have many action scenes. Most of it is about the thrill of the chase, finding one clue that leads to the next that leads to the next. There are no big fights and the vampires are more of a lurking menace in the background than an active player in the game. I think a lot of people wanted some sort of big showdown at the end and I can tell you that you don't get that. However, I really don't think a big showdown would have been keeping in tone with the book. When I read it, I thought the end was a fitting ending to this epic narrative. Did I still have a few questions? Well, yes but who doesn't when they finish such an engrossing read? I was perfectly satisfied when I put the book down, though. 

This book is well written and well researched. The plotting is spot on, keeping hold of you from page to page until you can't put the book down anymore. I really enjoyed it but I also know that I have a very academic mindset that also felt very at ease in the novel. If you don't think you could handle four page long segments on Ottoman conquests in the late fifteenth century, you may get a bit bored. If you love history and love mysteries, though, I think this may be the book for you.

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