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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I rarely read “scary books.” I did enough flashlight under the covers reading as a young teen to maintain my paranoia and neurosis for life. Yet every October the feeling to read something spooky strikes. This year I finally delved into a book that has been on my TBR list for almost a decade – Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. This book was huge when it was released in 2005, and it has been in my mind since then. This story of a multigenerational search for Dracula throughout Eastern Europe seemed to have just the right creep factor for this year’s Halloween pick.

The Historian is rather a difficult novel to pin down. It is about Dracula, so it’s a horror story. But it is about Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, the actual historical figure upon whom Count Dracula is based, so it’s a historical novel. And it is about good and evil and how religion plays into that so it’s a philosophical novel. And it’s about family, how we are connected and disconnected from our own history and each other so it’s a multigenerational family saga. Basically, this novel is a postmodern, epistolary mish mash of adventure, mystery, family, history, tragedy, and philosophy. And it’s great.

The novel hinges on a young woman, daughter of a historian, finding an old book that kicks off a series of adventures in various libraries throughout Europe. She eventually discovers that her father, Paul, has been searching for the tomb of Dracula since his college mentor and fellow historian went missing decades prior. Paul’s mentor, Professor Rossi, had also been searching for the tomb for years before his disappearance. Kostova delivers her history in an epistolary form that allows for great amounts of detail. The atmosphere created within the novel is dark and exciting. The salacious side of history is always more interesting than the sunshine and light stories of the past. 

This aspect of evil in history is a large part of what Kostova seems to be grappling with in this novel. The whole of humanity is stained by a dark past of which Vlad Dracula is a king. Dracula has come to stand for everything that is seductive about evil. We are drawn to the darkness in our history as we are in our own lives. Kostova writes about the historical figure of Vlad Tepes in a way that questions our willingness to surrender to great evil. She draws comparisons from Tepes to Stalin as well historical figures before and beyond.

The Historian is a thriller of dark rooms and dusty libraries. It is also a novel that questions convention. This is not life changing literature, but it is a lot of fun. The story of Dracula plays out with a surprising lack of the supernatural and a welcome lack of cliché. The suspense and overall eerie feeling of the novel are perfect for this time of year. The right book at exactly the right time.

1 comment:

  1. This book provides a great amount of historical accuracy, without the condescending tone of Robert Langdon's asides in any of Dan Brown's books. This is a true work of art that will appeal to any fan of history, historical fiction, and a great mystery!

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