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Elizabeth Kostova
The Historian
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Little, Brown / Time Warner Book Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-316-01177-0
Publication Date: 06-14-2005
645 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 07-25-05

Index: General Fiction  Horror  Mystery

Everyone has a history, and everyone is able to capture at least part of that history in language. We all have the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the little bits and pieces that we stitch together to form the narrative that is our lives. Those bits and pieces can take a myriad of forms, and we can put them together any way we choose. This is, in fact, how the form of the novel came upon us. It was not decided, it was not described then adhered to, but rather, it grew, organically out of experiments and inclinations, conveniences and conversations.

Today, the form of the novel is still in flux, or at least, it is not so nailed-to-the-wall as is the form of the screenplay. But still, there's a norm, and when we look back at the history of literature, it's sometimes surprising to see how experimental, in the freshest sense, some novels still seem. It shouldn't be surprising that a novel titled 'The Historian' brings with it a sense of the history of novels. But what is surprising is how it evokes not the old, but the new in the history of novels. Elizabeth Kostova's 'The Historian' is a gripping but beautifully written "cri de coeur" that evokes the experimental spirit that lead writers such as Bram Stoker to tell their story with not just a simple narrative, but a complex weave of correspondence, excerpts from personal journals and even fictional scholarly articles. Kostova interleaves stories from four different timelines, telling each in a detailed, literary style, but cutting from one to another to create tension and a sense of page-turning urgency.

Kostova's complex creation is told from the outermost level by an unnamed narrator, the daughter of an academic referred to only by his first name, Paul. Paul, in turn, tells the story of his academic mentor, Bartolomeo Rossi, who in turn finds himself searching for the story behind an ancient book that comes into the possession of every character. At the core, all of them are searching not necessarily for the historical Dracula, but rather the tomb of the historical Dracula, which in fact has never been -- and probably will never be -- located with any certainty. As each of their stories unfold in a series of letters and first-person narrations, they find themselves confronted with hints as to the origin and nature of the book they have been bequeathed. It is clearly an old tome, and all the pages are blank save for one in the center, which is tainted with a disturbing but compelling illustration of a dragon, named: Drakulya.

The joys to be found in 'The Historian' are many. In terms of storytelling, Kostova has created an enjoyably complex narrative. Stories within stories, letters, within letters, inter-cutting between several timelines -- Kostova uses them all and deploys them with great skill in a manner that is quite satisfying. I have to admit that as a reader, I'm particularly tired of vampire stories. When I first heard this was a novel that involved Dracula, I was disinclined to read it, but upon reading it, I found myself enjoying it immensely. For all the vampire fiction that has followed Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', none of it has ever gone back to the format of Stoker's original. 'The Historian' is very reminiscent -- in the best possible way -- of Stoker's work. Kostova has created a tapestry interleaving not just several stories, but convincing historical fictions told with enough conviction to have readers running to their references, or better yet, buying references to run to. This novel certainly offers enough just in terms of its plotting and structure to provide a great reading pleasure.

But 'The Historian' harkens back to the novels of old in another manner as well. Before we could fly everywhere on the planet, novels acted as a form of armchair travel. 'The Historian' excels as a travelogue, taking the reader to a series of remote monasteries and historical settings -- post-World War I Europe, the Ottoman Empire and a striking vision of Cold War-era Romania stand out. Her prose is dense when it needs to describe a gorgeous church in the Pyrenees, and transparent when it needs to get her characters from A to B. The author's travels around Europe as a child help invest the portions where her character travels about with the telling emotional details that lend the novel the ring of truth.

'The Historian' offers a rather large cast of characters, with a number of entertainingly memorable secondary participants. Kostova doesn't do a lot of favors for librarians, or for that matter libraries. Readers who enjoy Lovecraft's tales of scholars who sit about in libraries and read until they've scared themselves will find 'The Historian' favorably familiar. She takes a bit of a chance leaving her main characters unnamed, and indeed, at first it seems as if they will remain on the bland side. But by the time she's revealed her whole history, even her utterly unnamed narrator -- Paul's daughter -- has a pleasantly dense reading reality.

As far as the supernatural goes, 'The Historian' remains well on the vague side of the equation. Yes, there are vampires, but they're not overly explained. Kostova fills that cup of blood just to the lip and no further. She's clearly not interested in creating monsters or writing horror fiction per se. She is however, interested and very keen on creating moody, brooding paranoia, particularly in the portions of the narrative set in Cold War-era Bulgaria. Particularly notable here is the character of Ranov, a nosey bureaucrat assigned to follow our narrator about as she explores remote areas best left alone. Kostova's eye for layered details makes him quite memorable. If you like the feeling of someone hovering over your shoulder, then Kostova's novel will fill your cup of fear perfectly.

There's a lot to enjoyment to be had in 'The Historian'. Kostova has created a mountain of dense data that comes together with many intelligent and entertaining flourishes. And most importantly, in a novel of this length, in a novel of this complexity, she provides a payoff that is utterly satisfying without being over-the-top. Harkening back to the past, slicing and dicing time, story and perspective with clarity and complexity, 'The Historian' is a novel that provides that most pleasant of surprises, a story readers can explore in the labyrinths of their own minds, long after the covers have been closed.

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