Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Historian

Elizabeth Kostova’s novel The Historian is a work that spans many centuries, as well as numerous settings and cultures. The narrative opens in 1972, in Amsterdam, when the young protagonist finds in her diplomat father’s library a pile of yellowed letters, and medieval book containing nothing but a woodcut dragon. Over the course of the novel her father gives fleeting glimpses into the convoluted tale, and his search for Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler. When her father goes missing, leaving only a note, she is forced to take on the search for herself, which leads her into dangerous and uncharted territory.

The book is well written, with a brilliantly conceived and researched storyline, and yet one gets the impression that Kostova had simply far too much information than she knew how to deal with. The ensuing result is a convoluted plot that stretches from the 15th century to 1972, from the East Bloc to London. The plots are not at all difficult to follow, showing Kostova a very capable writer, and yet many of the characters seem to become superfluous. What we end up with is a story, within a story, within a story. Her main character is in fact the most unnecessary of all, serving nothing to advancing the plot, and in fact making it more confusing than it needs to be.

The research is vividly evident. The images of real historical horror are perhaps the most astounding of the book. Our narrator says of her father; "For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history's terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth." Kostova masterfully blends the horror of history with the human element in each of her characters, resulting in a gripping read.

Although its narrative structure could have been tweaked a little, The Historian is an astounding novel. It is historical, real and full of human emotion, with a satisfying ending that makes the novel a pleasure to read.



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