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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
3.5
Book Name: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Publisher(s): Little, Brown and Company
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Horror / Historical Fiction
Release Date: June 14, 2005

It is pretty clear at this point, that there is something of a glut of vampire literature hitting the fantasy scene these days. Bookstore bestseller tables groan with novels about bloodsuckers, adaptations of the most popular stories appear on screens big and small, the undead make up a major focus of not one, but two linked subgenres, Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance…It seems like you can’t take a step without bumping into some version of things that go bump in the night.

What makes Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian stand out from the rest of the crowd, you might ask? Because stand out, it certainly does.

For one thing, while most of the vampire characters currently enjoying their time in the sun (okay, I couldn’t resist that one) are, more or less, alluring variations on the Romantic ideal of the demon lover, meant to toe the line between unnerving and seductive power, Kostova’s vision of a vampire harkens back to one of the classic stories, which is, after all, one of horror. In it, the vampire is not the hero, or the anti-hero, or the forbidden lover, but the monstrous villain. Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to an ambiguous moral view of vampiric characters (some of my best friends are…well, okay maybe not). This book, though, makes for a refreshing change from some distinctly sanitized versions. It reminds the reader just how menacing the idea of vampires can be.

Kostova has written a genuinely creepy tale that takes as its starting point one of the stories that originally brought vampires into popular literature, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is not a retelling, but rather an original play on many of the ideas Stoker’s novel puts forward, with some new twists added in. It paints a chilling picture of a stalking predator and of the protagonists’ search for a means to understand and then destroy him, but it also builds upon that kernel in very original way. It turns the mystery of the Dracula story with a more involved narrative about the search for truths hidden in the past.

The Historian keeps the same format as Dracula, presenting the story to the reader as a collection of fragmentary testimonies, letters, and other bits of evidence. The reader is only gradually able to construct a complete narrative of the events, and only through the combination of many individual perspectives. This structure has the same effect it did in the original novel: it highlights the mystery of the events retold and makes the reader think like a detective, trying to understand how the different pieces of the story fit together.

Kostova, however, has made The Historian even less of a unified narrative than Stoker did with the original classic. Her novel has a metatext quality, which pushes the boundaries between author and fictional creation. The story is presented as a collection of documents by one of the characters, so that it is not clear, at the beginning of the book and before the fantastic components emerge, whether the story is not simply a memoir written by a daughter about her father and the stories he told her.

Another level of complication added to the plot is the fact that the story takes place during three different distinct time periods. It is simultaneously the story of the unnamed female narrator, of her father’s student life before she was born, and of her father’s mentor’s youth. Time is hugely significant in this novel, not only because of the years that have elapsed between the story’s key events, but because the search for evidence hidden for generations or even centuries is by far the most important activity in the book.

The Historian is aptly named, because it is not just about a supernatural hunt, but also about what it is like to search for clues in the historical record. Kostova takes the unnaturally-long existence of the vampire, and the roots of the Dracula story in the existence of an actual historical figure, and makes the hunters who want to destroy him historians and their tools research techniques, archival searches, and knowledge of dead languages.

A novel about professional historians tracking down a vampire is not for everyone. For one thing, you need to have a certain acceptance of the privileges and narrowness of perspective that comes from life in the ivory tower—an environment the protagonists of The Historian definitely hail from. On the other hand, if you can get beyond that, Kostova really does have an excellent way of expressing the power of history, and the pull that it has on its students.

Historians know the dark details of history, the facts that are more haunting than any horror story, and they also know its fascination and its power. Kostova has a very astute perspective on the ambiguity of this relationship, and some of the best passages of her book are those where she illuminates this. “It is a fact,” she writes, “that we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part that we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship; it is also true that as we steep ourselves in our interests, they become more and more a part of us.” There is a dark and troubling strain to our thoughts on the past, a place that remains both distant and tangible, and that haunts us even without recourse to supernatural forces. Kostova simply pushes this perspective on history a little farther, and adds gothic elements that bring to life—or at least to undeath—the historian’s eternal quest to reach out to and understand the past.

The Historian succeeds as a supernatural mystery and as an exploration of the hold that history has over our imagination, and there are only a few elements that mar the experience. Both Kostova’s insights and her intricate plotting techniques keep the story moving through its almost 700 pages, but, stylistically speaking, it has some limitations. One is the length, which is mostly due to an overabundance of descriptive prose. Kostova is trained as a mainstream literature writer, rather than a genre author, and her prose is a trifle overwritten from time to time. She could have used an editor with a sharper scalpel.

Also, from a purely historical perspective, Kostova is tackling a difficult geographical area in her tale—the blurred and complex region of Eastern Europe. It is the site, not only of Dracula’s castle, but of the Ottoman Empire, the Iron Curtain, and centuries of different Balkan wars. It is a place that is hard to describe without falling into troubling stereotypes about the alien East versus the known West, and Kostova sometimes slides into this kind of language. While I enjoyed her descriptions of Istanbul, Budapest, the Carpathian Mountains, and the other settings of her story, I wished that they had been presented without quite so much exoticism. It is difficult, even for writers of fantasy literature, to escape the shadow of traditional prejudice and misrepresentation when writing about different lands and peoples. It is one of the ways that we (both readers and writers) are haunted by the past today, just as effectively as the protagonists of The Historian are pursued by the figure of Dracula.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (3 votes cast)
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, 10.0 out of 10 based on 3 ratings
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One Comment

  1. ChrisMB87 says:

    You have made me actually want to go and pick up a vampire novel. Great review as usual, Chloe!

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