The Historian

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 you’re pretty sure how the story is going to end.

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 can’t decide, so I’ll 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.

“This 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 mentor’s own history, and of how we all found ourselves on one of the darkest pathways into history.”

That is a little of the flavor of the work, from the first page, called “A Note to the Reader”, written in the manner of those stories which, like Stoker’s book. the Marlowe tales of Josef Conrad, or Rice’s 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 Paul’s (her father), inside of which is that of Professor Rossi, who eventually turns out to be her grandfather, which is the only plot twist I’m going to give you in this review.

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 father’s books in his library. In the middle of the book are some letters, the first of which begins thus.

“My dear and unfortunate successor:

“It 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.”

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 Brown’s DaVinci Code, but it’s 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 readers’ world.