Elizabeth Kostova – The Historian

Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.

Much like the mysterious books at the heart of the mystery in The Historian, this book had just appeared on my desk one morning when I got to work. Thankfully, it wasn’t by special delivery from Dracula, but one of my co-workers brought it in, thinking I might like it. And there was much promise in the premiss of the book. The subject – a re-imagining of Dracula – was interesting. Combined with the fact that the narrative took place at libraries and universities for a large part of the book, there was every reason for me to like this book. Unfortunately, The Historian was ruined for me by the epilogue. It made everything that went before seem irrelevant and left the book with an ambiguous ending, maybe meant so it could be picked up in a sequel, though I never got the idea that this is what the author intended. It was very disappointing and made me want to chuck the book at a wall.

There were some positive things about this book. One of the things I really did like was the narrative form Kostova used. The Historian is largely an epistolary novel, linked together by our narrator telling us her own adventure. The story was actually three different timelines that were patched together like a quilt to create one large narrative, one set in the 1930’s, one set in what I guessed was the 1950’s and the latest one was set in the early 1970’s. I enjoyed the fleeting impressions these time periods gave us of university life in each of them. I especially loved the time spent in the university libraries – how could I not – and the emphasis on the importance and inherent mystery of books. Something which is doubly emphasised by the strange, empty, and ancient books that several of the protagonists found.

Apart from the fact that the book had a historical fiction flavour, it was also somewhat of a travelogue. I really enjoyed the parts set in Amsterdam, as I am somewhat familiar with that city, living relatively close by, but the city from the past was both familiar and unfamiliar and that strange sense of not-quite-recognition was very cool. At the same time, the fact that the book travels so many places is both a strength and a weakness. As some places were very distinguishable (mainly Amsterdam and Istanbul) and others just ran together. Especially the section were the novel travels into Hungary and Romania become a bit blurred, with most of the peasants resembling each other and later on all the bureaucrats being the same as well.

Another thing that really bothered me was the fact, that while many people are given names, background and history, I couldn’t remember whether we’d ever learned our narrator’s first name or her and her father’s surname. Even copious amounts of flipping back and forth through the book didn’t bring me an answer, so I have to draw the conclusion that we don’t and that these names aren’t even mentioned. While it’s probably just a completely personal quirk, not having a characters name, unless there is a really good reason not to give it, really bugs me. At the same time, with this book, I wonder whether the names may have been given, but they just didn’t leave enough of an impression to stick in my memory, which might be even worse.

In all, the book was rather long, though I only began to think so after I finished it. The big climax is given rather short shrift in comparison to all the build up. About 95% (if not more) of the book is build up of the story, it tells the story through the 1930’s and 1950’s and shows us most of how our narrator discovers these separate threads of the mystery. Mixed in with this is a lot of description of travelling to places, just to hear a piece of her father’s story, which drew out the narrative and made it far longer than it could have been and also made the novel’s pace drag needlessly in places. In contrast, the climax seemed rather hurried and abrupt. And the following denouement of the novel, though short, could have been satisfactory, if it hadn’t been for that benighted epilogue.

The Historian was a strange read; when I was reading, I couldn’t put it down, but when I had to get back into it, I had to push myself to pick up the book. In the end though, while it wasn’t a horrible read, the epilogue killed the book for me and I’m afraid I won’t be seeking out Kostova’s other books. Obviously this book didn’t work for me, for reasons described above, but that doesn’t mean real Dracula enthusiasts won’t enjoy the book. Still, this is a book I’d advise to approach with caution. If you truly like the sound of it, I’d see whether you could borrow it (as I did) or check out the sample chapters for the e-book before you buy.


7 thoughts on “Elizabeth Kostova – The Historian”

  1. Kostova did mountains of research for this book–a historian herself. She sold it straight out of her MFA thesis–extremely unusual and you would think quite promising. However, this still felt like a sophomoric novel. She gets too wrapped up in her history and in creating in depth side characters while forgetting to focus on her narrator. And as someone who is a Dracula fanatic, I was not impressed.

  2. I remember that while I was reading the book at first I couldn't put it down either. But slowly it turned out that finishing it became a difficult mission. I did finish it, but not many things stick to my memory now. I don't regret it, but I would not pick it for a re-read either.

  3. I'm actually reading the book now (I had to force myself to pick it up though) I think its good so far, but I'm starting to thing its way to long and the description of places is nice but rather long as well…though I have a question does Kostova ever reveal the narrators name?

  4. I enjoyed the early parts of the novel as well, so you're not alone in that. And no, Kostova never reveals the narrator's name, much to my chagrin!

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