The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

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Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Paperback: 832 pages
Publisher: Time Warner Books; Later Printing edition (2006)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0316057886
ISBN-13: 978-0316057882

‘The Historian’ is a classified as ‘Historical Fiction’ in Amazon.com. It is the debut novel of Elizabeth Kostova and blends the mystery of Vlad the Impaler, the legend of Dracula and fiction.

Briefly, ‘The Historian’ features a nameless narrator who documents her adventure in unraveling a mystery after discovering an odd book. She tells her father, a historian, about this book: it has no words but a picture of a dragon in the middle. The father, Paul, tells her the story of his discovery of the book and how it led him on a wild adventure where he met (and later married) the narrator’s mother, Helen Rossi. Halfway through the book, Paul disappears in search of Helen with the narrator and her companion hot on his trail.

‘The Historian’ won awards from the best ‘Novel-in-progress’ (Hopwood Award – 2003) and ‘Debut Author of the Year’ (Quill Award – 2005) to ‘Award for Best Adult Fiction’ (Book Sense – 2006). It is easy to see why ‘The Historian’ won these awards.

For a start, the plot and structure of the novel are very well constructed. As a novel that weaves between time zones, it is easy for the reader to get lost at any one moment. However, Kostova made sure that the reader was never lost in the novel. For example, at the beginning of chapter 4, she writes, ‘As I’ve told you, my father said, clearing his throat once or twice …’ This is a clear indication that the rest of the chapter will be about the father’s adventure, rather than the narrator’s.

That said, the novel is very long and there are times, especially in the middle, when there are no real surprises in store for the reader. A seasoned reader could easily, and rightly, guess each event in the novel. Furthermore, the end of the tale suggests that the characters think that they have killed Dracula, but the last chapter suggests that he will live forever. Perhaps, Kostova could have provided a more realistic and satisfying ending by suggesting that the characters, though happy that their ordeal was over, weren’t sure whether Dracula was dead. Nevertheless, they made the decision to move on with their lives and forget all about Dracula.

Still, the characters are well developed and Kostova certainly made an effort to describe their emotions well. For instance, this is what Paul says when he observed the moment Helen showed him her fear: ‘Her face had tightened and she was staring at me, the ugliness very close to the surface now, her eyes too bright. But at that moment, for the first time since Massimo had shouted to me that Rossi had disappeared, I felt an infinitesimal lightening of burdens, a shifting of the weight of loneliness. She hadn’t laughed at my melodrama, as she could have called it, or frowned, puzzled. Most importantly, there was no cunning in her look, nothing to indicate that I was talking with an enemy. Her face registered only one emotion, as far as she allowed it: a delicate, flickering fear.’

Sadly, the prose doesn’t always flow smoothly. Sometimes, it appears as though Kostova is trying too hard to be unique. For instance, she writes, ‘I hated to sacrifice her feelings, even in that unpleasant moment, when she’d unbent so far toward me.’ It is close to impossible to understand what ‘unbent so far toward me’ means.

The novel is set in several interesting locations from Oxford, America and Italy to Istanbul, Bulgaria and Romania. In all honesty, there are just too many locations to keep track of. Perhaps, with the novel being this complex, keeping the locations to no more than three might have made each location even more memorable. This is especially since some of the places had a communist regime in force – had Kostova stuck to fewer locations, she might have been able to showcase such an interesting political background even more than she did.

All said and done, ‘The Historian’ is worth reading. It is the kind of novel that will make you stay awake at night because you need to know what happens next. ‘The Historian’ is certainly a story that won’t be easily forgotten.

Reviewed by Moira Tan
(June 2015)

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