Reviewed: August 23, 2006
By: Elizabeth Kostova
Publisher: Little, Brown
642 pages, $34.95
One of the marks of
a really good story teller is that she can pick you up, carry you away, and
keep your interest even when youíre pretty sure how the story is going to
That might be one
way to start this review. Another way might take this tack.
Of the tales of Dracula
and vampires there would seem to be no end, though even Anne Rice has moved
on, and the Lord of the Undead has been undone more times that we can count.
Either opening would
be true of The Historian, and I canít decide, so Iíll let both stand.
Kostova has produced
one of those Bram Stoker pastiches that even pays homage to the epistolary
manner in which the great original was written back in the 1890s, while at
the same time bringing the story clearly into the middle of the 20th century.
The nameless historian
of the title asks us to believe that she is writing in the 1990s (about a
century after Stoker) recording events that happened some 36 years earlier.
ďThis is the story
of how as a girl of sixteen I went in search of my father and his past, and
of how he went in search of his beloved mentor and his mentorís own history,
and of how we all found ourselves on one of the darkest pathways into history.Ē
That is a little of
the flavor of the work, from the first page, called ďA Note to the ReaderĒ,
written in the manner of those stories which, like Stokerís book. the Marlowe
tales of Josef Conrad, or Riceís own Interview with a Vampire, ask
us to believe that some real person is narrating real events for us.
That long sentence
also tells you about the nature of the book, which is like one of those oriental
puzzle dolls. There is her story, inside of which is Paulís (her father),
inside of which is that of Professor Rossi, who eventually turns out to be
her grandfather, which is the only plot twist Iím going to give you in this
If the book has a
problem at all, and it is a small one to me, it is that the transitions among
the three main first person narratives are sometimes not clear, and you have
to back up a paragraph or two to reset your perceptions of what is happening
and to whom.
Of course all three
tales pause in terrible cliffhangers which leave you chafing to get on with
THAT story even as you are guided into a different one - but that is half
the fun of this sort of story, and none of the subplots are so boring that
you would want to skip ahead to find out where the one you are leaving for
a time is going to end up.
Our Historian begins
her quest into the past by finding a strange volume amongst her diplomat fatherís
books in his library. In the middle of the book are some letters, the first
of which begins thus.
ďMy dear and unfortunate
ďIt is with regret
that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading this account I must put down
here. The regret is partly for myself - because I will surely be dead, or
perhaps worse, it this is in your hands.Ē
Or perhaps worse?†
Well, yes, perhaps,
if the very dangerous subject matter of your scholarly research happens to
be Vlad III (Tepes) of Wallachia, otherwise known as Drakulya.
All three of our narrators,
on a quest for similar but different reasons, travelling in different decades
and in different ways, search the length and breadth of Europe, from London
to the mountains of the Balkans, from one mysterious library and half-clue
to the next, to ferret out the meaning of the strange, antique leather bound
journals with the dragon woodcut emblazoned on the cover , journals left to
stir the minds of the curious and lead them - alive or dead, willing or unwilling
- into the service of the one who was once called the Impaler.
This is a slow book.
It simmers like a pot roast at low heat, one which produces the best gravy
and the juiciest meat without drying out. You have to take your time with
it, and savor the flavours of the different eras in which the story is being
told. The characters are engaging on several levels. They have puzzles to
follow, many of which we understand before they do, but they also have lives
to live and loves to pursue, and all of that comes across as well.
This book has been
compared to Dan Brownís DaVinci Code, but itís only fair to say that
they are not really the same type of thing at all, except in that they deal
with centuries old conspiracies. Brown wrote an action thriller with intellectual
pretensions. This is an intellectual thriller with occasional bits of action.
Both have their place in the readersí world.