Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

When I read books that are particularly gripping or suspenseful, I have a very bad habit (or my eyes do) of jumping to the last line of a chapter before I can stop myself. It can really deflate the suspense, and I find myself having to cover up the last few lines with my hand or a book mark to keep that from happening. Reading Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, sometimes my greedy eyes still managed to get the best of me. This is a well-written, thrilling novel, and if I’d read The Da Vinci Code, I would probably compare it to that. Alas, I have not, but from what I know both novels’ characters spend most of the story traveling across Europe, unearthing secret documents that have been buried, often intentionally hidden, even, under centuries of history to solve an ancient mystery. The only difference is that instead of trying to bring to light Jesus’ marital status, Kostova’s characters are trying to find, and destroy, the vampire Dracula (I admit that this is a big difference). If nothing else, this book strengthened my sense of European geography, which always used to get a bit fuzzy once I got east of Italy. The main characters spend their time chasing Dracula’s past all across Holland, France, Romania and Hungary, to name just a few.

The book follows three generations of historians, and is narrated by the youngest (she never gives her name), who tells her father’s story through letters he left to her, who in turn relates the story of his mentor through letters written to him within the letters that he wrote to her. All of this results in an infuriating use of quotation marks that led me to seriously question the need to have one-third of the book told through letters. Said letters also really lose their sense of urgency—the man believed himself to be in serious danger of vampire attack—when their author stops warning his daughter and rushing to recount the steps that he took in tracing the path of Vlad Dracula, and starts to spend nearly full pages describing haircuts, exquisite ottomans (the furniture, of course), and Mediterranean food. This didn’t make the book any less entertaining—in fact, quite the opposite. Kostova’s writing is crisp and intelligent, and her descriptions of European architecture and her novel’s characters are captivating. Her sharp (you probably wouldn’t call it beautiful or colorful) prose fleshes out the plot and lends the novel a dark, brooding feel, right from the first paragraph:

As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorable forward for us with its shadowy claw.

Scenes switch from innocent to grim with one well-placed word from the author. The first half of the book feels so personal that it reads almost like a diary, and was a believable story for so many pages that it was almost easy to forget that it is, after all, a novel; Kostova keeps up this pretense by taking up the perspective of her own, nameless narrator even in her note to the reader and the dedication: For my father, who first told me some of these stories. Does she want the reader to assume that she is her own narrator? That extra element of reality would contribute significantly to the story’s viability as a thriller. After a while though, it started to seem like little twists were written in just for the sake of making the novel a page-turner, and not necessarily to advance the plot. Again, this didn’t make it any less of a great book. I won’t tell you what happens in the end, but I will leave you with this little bit to pique your interest:

Helen was full of these surprises, and I grew to consider them my daily fare, a pleasant addiction I developed to her ability to catch me off guard. But she never startled me more than at that moment in Istanbul, when she suddenly shot the librarian.


Carlton said...

I have almost purchased this book a number of times.

Nathan said...

I really enjoyed it, but I'm glad I got it at a library sale. I'd gladly loan it to you, but I'm in Central America.