The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova, Back Bay Books, 2005.
Elizabeth Kostova’s acclaimed debut novel is an inventive re-imagining of Dracula that reads like an intimate, tragic memoir.
Told mostly from the point of view of the teenage daughter of a historian, and set mostly during the Cold War, from the depths of international tensions through the first thaw of detente, The Historian weaves the personal lives of its characters through the fabric of world events, teasing out the threads that bind them all within past, present and future.
The drama begins simply with a historian receiving an old book. How it comes to him, he does not know. Why it comes to him becomes the obsession of the story. The hunt for the answer reveals an endless web of secrets spanning centuries and nations, and entangling many historians who, like the main narrator’s father, received their own old books containing the same enticing mystery. At first it seems impossible, then ridiculous, and at last nightmarishly real. It is the siren allure of Dracula, Prince of Wallachia, and our protagonists learn that this ancient legend is tied up with powerful forces in the modern world.
The trope of the reckless antiquarian who uncovers what should remain buried and suffers catastrophe as a result is a horror staple and one of my favorites. (Check the short stories of M.R. James for stellar example.) Arguably, the driving force of The Historian is that antiquarian spirit, the historian’s enthusiasm in pursuit of knowledge. There is love in old things, excitement in exotic libraries, and joy in the revelation of long-lost truths. But history, like the immortal vampire himself, is not dead. It is powerful, complex, and inescapable, and if we are not careful, it will devour us.
Ms. Kostova writes with beauty and sincerity, and she does not talk down to her readers. She gives us a complicated, wide-ranging drama with lots of moving parts. She immerses us in romance, embroils us in international intrigue, diverts us with humor, and pays homage to the gothic horror and epistolary form of Stoker’s original novel, all at the same time. It’s a crazy ride, but if a reader will dive in and let the story carry her where it may, it is deeply satisfying.
Like the recipients of the weird old books, each reader will interpret The Historian in their own way. For me, vampires, romance, and feuding intellectuals aside, the book is about figuring out what life is for, what we’re supposed to be doing here. It’s about fighting the good fight — the one about being human, finding love, resisting the seductions of power — and if it has a message, it is that “the struggle continues.”
Look for The Historian and Ms. Kostova’s next novel, The Swan Thieves, at your local, independent bookseller.