Kostova’s tale about the vampire that started it all is elegantly written, unsettling, and often evocative – but it ultimately gets mired in its own intricacies while building up to a denouement that doesn’t quite justify the effort taken to reach it.
The Historian is, naturally, about historians. It’s also about history, in both its meanings – the subject and the discipline. Our historian protagonists journey through various European countries to find the final resting place of the historical figure Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century Wallachian warlord who fought the Ottomans and impaled his enemies, and who inspired the vampiric Dracula we all know and revere as part of the cultural milieu. Except, Vlad really is a vampire in this novel. And not of the sparkly variety.
The tale is told in multiple layers. The narrative switches between the protagonist’s dramatized account of her teenage years accompanying her father, Paul, on his travels across Europe as a diplomat, and Paul’s own reluctant verbal and epistolary account to her of his story of his pan-European quest to rescue a distinguished professor seemingly spirited away due to his research into vampires. Paul’s story incorporates the distinguished professor’s own narrative, and the professor’s narrative, in turn, includes renditions of primary historical documents that offer clues as to Dracula’s resting place. As Paul’s narrative unfolds, it slowly informs more and more of the mystery enshrouding the protagonist’s present narrative strand.
If that sounds like a complicated onion of a narrative, that’s probably the point. The Historian is nothing less than a story about historians performing historical research in order to advance the narrative. Paul and his wife-to-be, Helen (and, incidentally, the narrator’s parents) travel from city to city, visit old libraries, consult with local historians, peruse ancient maps and letters, and listen to centuries-old folk songs in their quest to find the tomb to which Dracula’s minions have spirited Paul’s beloved mentor (and Helen’s estranged father), Bartholomew Rossi. In the relative present, the narrator retraces her father’s journey through reading his letters, notes, and by deducing his whereabouts with a little quick sleuthing.
In The Historian, scholarly ability, intellectual rigor and perseverance are hallmarks of heroism, but overreaching inquisitiveness can spirit you to the darkest of places. Rossi’s research into Dracula attracts his attention, and it is for that reason – and Dracula’s high opinion of the quality of Rossi’s research – that he is abducted. That tension between the practice of history as a gesture of bravery, as well as potentially ruinous, is a running tension in the novel. This is to be commended, as it subverts the common trope in horror that curiosity kills the cat.
But the series’ focus on history is also the source of its greatest flaws. The Historian is Kostova’s first novel, and it shows. The book starts with considerable panache, doling out tantalizing and mysterious dollops of story progression. But Kostova becomes mired in the complexity of her own plot. The book wears out its welcome in a plodding second act that sees Paul and Helen running across Eastern Europe trying to find the whereabouts of Dracula’s tomb. Kostova begins to go into tedious detail over their careful discussions over various historical documents, their provenance, destination, and how it might lead to Dracula’s whereabouts – detail that seems artificially inserted to provide the illusion of complexity, when actually the truth of Dracula’s whereabouts is quite obvious to the reader without the need for the ponderous exposition.
The novel’s second act eventually sees the two plot strands – past and present – meld together, as the narrator ends up finding her father. Dracula appears, but he is quickly dispatched in anticlimactic fashion, hardly befitting of the dread vampire he was supposed to be. The reveal of Dracula’s intentions – that he seeded clues to his existence all over the world to entice worthy historians to find him, whereupon he would make them catalogue his vast library of hoarded works – adroitly addresses the nagging questions I had with the apparent irrationality of the villains’ machinations. But the fact that Dracula instituted a whole plan just to find competent librarians for his giant library is unconvincing. It trivialises his menace.
Nevertheless, there is much to like about the book, despite its structural flaws and flaccid ending. Kostova’s prose is elegant and evocative, especially when describing the places and cuisines of the various European destinations through which our protagonists pass. Reading these sumptuous descriptions I resolved that I should visit these places for myself. Paul, in particular, espouses a brand of wanderlust to which I find I can relate. His is a connoisseur’s appreciation of the experience of travel, of taking a train rather than a plane, of savouring the feeling of being on the road. Kostova captures that unique essence of travel very well.
To sum, I enjoyed much of the book, even if I thought it fell a little flat nearing the end. Ultimately, the book’s treatment of Dracula as real is more of a hook into Kostova’s themes than an attempt to spin horror out of an old and venerable figure of legend. Dracula is the linchpin of history at its darkest. He signifies the unending struggle between two worlds: East and West, Christian and Islam, capitalism and communism, human and vampire, mortal and immortal. Dracula is a reminder of the thick evil that resides in the heart of history, a counter-narrative to those that would deem history as the preserve of bookish bores. The Historian tries to make the practice of history mysterious, threatening, and heroic – and perhaps almost succeeds.
I give this book: 3 out of 5 dragon books