Fiction – hardcover; Little Brown; 657 pages; 2005.
The Historian is a lush, richly evocative novel that explores the Dracula legend from an historical perspective.
In this gripping tale the narrator, a 16-year-old girl, discovers an intriguing batch of letters in her father’s library. Unable to resist reading them she unwittingly opens a dark chapter in her family’s past, which takes her on an ominous and dangerous journey, both physically and psychologically, across three decades and several countries. Along the way she learns the truth about her dead mother and how her father’s seemingly benign academic research has put them all at risk.
Essentially The Historian is a story about the quest to find the resting place of Vlad the Impaler, the real Dracula whose tyrannical rule in the mid-15th century resulted in thousands of gruesome deaths by impalement in the Romanian countryside.
Part travelogue, part historical drama, part detective story, this gothic novel is immensely readable. Kostova excels at capturing the details and atmosphere of specific places (her descriptions, whether of Oxford, Amsterdam, Venice, Instanbul or Budapest, are pitch perfect) and time periods (1930s Romania, Cold War Europe and Oxford in the 1970s). She is also a master at writing cliffhangers at the end of almost every chapter, which only serves to keep the reader turning the pages (and reading long past this reviewer’s bedtime).
The narrative is cleverly constructed, deftly switching points of view and periods in history without ever confusing the reader, while the characters are strong, lively and well-rounded.
I particularly liked that this was not a Dracula book full of blood, coffins, murder and mayhem – instead Kostova presents the lore in an almost intellectual way, using the power of imagined historical documents, folk songs and legends to paint a believable, almost authentic, version of the Dracula myth.
My only quibble is that the story seemed to run out of steam at the end, and the conclusion did not seem particularly satisfying after all the suspense and atmosphere that preceded it. That said, I thought it was a powerful, well written and entertaining novel that deserves the praise already heaped upon it by other reviewers. If only it would knock those Dan Brown books off the bestseller lists!