The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Published by Little Brown, June 2005
644 pages. ISBN: 0316730319
Bear with me here. What I’m about to start with may sound a little strange.
Those of you in the UK might remember a TV series made in the 1980’s called Treasure Hunt. This was a British TV programme where a treasure hunter (usually a very nice looking lady) was flown around in a helicopter to different locations. At each location she should would have to find information which would lead to the next location, all the while being given clues from a studio. The end of the programme was where having followed all the clues the hunter would hopefully find the ultimate treasure – usually a cash prize, or such like.
I haven’t seen the programme for about twenty years or so, but strangely this did spring back to mind after reading Kostova’s book, The Historian.
The book is basically a story, or a number of intertwined narratives in which the 16 year old eponymous Historian, tells a story – the story of her father’s dealings with the myth and legend of Vlad Tepes / Draculya. The story expands to further include the story of how her father, Paul, a diplomat, met her mother, Helen, now missing, and the father’s friend and mentor, Rossi, a university lecturer whose disappearance leads to Paul’s travels around Eastern Europe in the 1950’s.
Why the Treasure Hunt reference? No helicopters, sadly, (though there are aeroplanes!), my overall impression upon finishing the book was that it was like that programme: a series of episodes following clues which lead to the final prize – in the book’s case, the search for Dracula’s tomb. Much of the book is spent following clues – old documents, books, museums, research across Europe, and at different times – in the 1930’s, the 1950’s and 1960’s. As in the case of many good old adventure stories, there is a mystery to be solved and that is part of the entertainment.
There is a lot of love in this book. A love of history and historical artefacts, a love of books, a love of old places, old customs, of secret places and hidden things. There is also the love between the characters – part of the narrative tells of a love story between the father and his wife as well as the love between the father, mother and their daughter. There is perhaps above all a joy in the process of research and the joy of discovery – of finding things out that had been lost and decoding the past.
If you are interested in these things you will find a lot to like about this book. I was very pleased at the way the author evokes a sense of place and a sense of history through the book.
One example of many, from page 185 –
The only thing we could do was to turn our feet toward our one landmark, the Hagia Sophia, originally the great Byzantine Church of Saint Sophia. And once we drew near it, it was impossible for us not to enter. The gates were open and the huge sanctuary pulled us in among the other tourists as if we rode a wave into a cavern. For fourteen hundred years, I reflected, pilgrims had been drawn into it, just as we are now. Inside, I walked slowly to the center and craned my neck back to see that vast, divine space with its famous whirling domes and arches, its celestial light pouring in, the round shields covered with Arabic calligraphy in the upper corners, mosque overlaying church, church overlaying the ruins of the ancient world. It arched far, far above us, replicating the Byzantine cosmos. I could hardly believe I was there. I was stunned by it.
There was a depth here, which was both pleasing and beguiling and did much to endear me to the book. I also liked the clever references to the Dracula legend – both in history and the Bram Stoker version, with a nod to Bela Lugosi along the way. However such a willingness to involve the reader in such places also leads to a long book. If you are here for the journey and not the destination, then that is a bonus, not a problem. However I do also feel that for some this would slow down the book and that interest would be lost quickly.
The same could also be said about the book being presented as a horror story. The book is not an out and out horror fest. Rather it is a more subtle, yet perhaps more enduring presence – that feeling of unease, rather than feeling ill.
Kostova does well to keep the reader’s interest by emphasising that, rather than showing the actual horror. It is often what is behind the door that scares, more than the actual horror itself.
On the negative side, there are contrivances in the plot that will make you gasp – they did me, anyway – and none more so than the huge leap of faith around the 460 page mark. On reflection, there are too many coincidences here. They are not as overwhelming as some books I have read, but they cumulatively stopped me from enjoying the story as much as I would’ve liked to.
I also found the basic premise of the story a little wobbly. Much of the book is spent in travelling from England and the USA to various places in Eatern Europe. Though some dificulties are mentioned, I’m not entirely convinced that ‘foreigners’ would have been allowed the free rein that the characters in this book are allowed in 1930’s, 1950’s or even 1970’s Europe.
Also jarringly, in places, the book lapses into the odd anachronistic American cultural reference. This is a problem for the book in that some of the characters in the book are British and European and yet some of the things done and said in the book do not give that impression. Moreover, the ability of people, whose first language is not English, to speak in complex sentences with a vocabulary better than many people of today is rather astounding to say the least.
Nevertheless, if you can read the book with a certain degree of suspension of disbelief, (and after all, we are talking Dracula and vampires here!) and can cope with the lapses, the book is a promising debut. There is much to enjoy, and it is better than a lot of the rather similar books doing the rounds at the moment.
Hobbit, August 2005