Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian

28Jul06

Dear Perceptive Reader,

Rendered numb by the chilling pages of The Historian, a heavy volume of which stares unblinkingly into my eyes, I sit up at this hour of the night to scribe in words what my voice has failed.

I would remind you of the year 1897, when Bram Stoker wrote his classic Epistolary Dracula based in the medieval Europe, a region historically known for its Vampire stories. Given his chosen locality, Stoker picked Vlad Ţepeş (aka Vlad Dracula) a 15th century tyrant European ruler, as the core entity of his novel.

Now, more than a century later the legend gets a reincarnation, or in the viler terms of Vampire lore – becomes the undead, in the hands of Elizabeth Kostova. And just like Stoker’s Dracula, The Historian, is an epistolary novel, where it all begins with the 16 year old narrator coming across a letter on her father, Paul’s desk.

My dear unfortunate successor,
It is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading the account I must put down here. The regret is partly for myself – because I will surely be at least in trouble, may be dead, or perhaps worse, if this is in your hands.

Dead or perhaps worse? What could be worse than dead? I inferred, that horrific nuggets of truth was about to unveil itself even as her father began narrating the story of his terrible past – partly in person, and mostly through the letters he leaves for her.

The story moves simultaneously in three periods, 1930s, 1950s and the present – 1970s, and narrates the obsessive search for the secrets hidden in the pages of history. Pursued by the narrator’s parents (1950s), Paul’s Professor Rossi (1930s) and herself (1970s) searching for her lost father, the truth hidden amidst the historical conundrums is the legend that Vlad Ţepeş is – hold your breath – alive!

More than being a narration, the story was my journey, through Kostova’s words, into medieval Europe, amid a myriad of mystery laden travails that begins from Amsterdam, moves across England, Istanbul, Hungary, Paris, Romania, Bulgaria with intermittent halts in Monasteries, Churches, Libraries, Archives, Tombs in a deftly crafted page-turner fused with doses of incredible surprise.

I must quickly point out that it’s not only the horror element that deserves notice, but Kostova also provides the emotional appetizers. Love and romance have an intrinsic part, albeit less apparent. Be it the instance when Helen, the narrator’s mother, in one of the letters explains the pain of being away from her little child,

The sight of you waking from your nap, your hands moving before any other part stirred, dark lashes fluttering next, and then your stretching, your smiling, filled me completely.

Or, the sensuous romance in Paul’s letter to Helen,

The delicate base of your neck and the delicate collar of your blouse, that blouse whose outline I knew by heart before my fingers touched its pearly buttons.

Between this strange mix of a love sought and missed and the looming horror, The Historian, brought me face-to-face with the evil undead – Vlad Dracula. There was something about his movement that was indiscernibly different from that of a living man.

Perhaps the only point where the novel lost its tune was during the final showdown with Vlad Dracula himself, which was but meek. Considering the extraordinary build-up spanning 600 pages of gripping momentum, the last 40 pages left me with an awry feeling of something gone missing.

Do remember, dear reader, despite the tame finish, the book is best read at the stroke of midnight. And, when you do read, also remember to hold bits of garlic and your crucifix clutched tight in your palm, as it’s that time of the day when the undead awaken from the cozy confines of their sarcophagus.

But right now, I notice the first crack of dawn through the corner of my sarcophagus, and I retreat until nightfall.

Yours Chillingly,
Vlad Ţepeş

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6 Responses to “Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian

  1. 1 prat

    Kishore,
    The narrative is chilling and touching at the same time. Absolutely loved the ending.
    This may seem totally out of the blue, but I think you should read this short story by Poe called Diary of a Madman.
    Look it up in book fair link.
    And what a word, sarcophagus.

  2. That was terrifically cute Kishore..the signing off.. :)

    As for the rest of the review.. yeah we all know you have a knack for conveying thoughts like they were real. :)

  3. 3 Jax

    So you finally managed to write a review of the book… good….

  4. 4 Kishore

    Prat,
    Thanks! Read that story, so creepy..

    Phoenix,
    Thanks..

    Jax,
    Oh, I finally did.

  5. 5 Farrah

    i am now reading the historian
    but im sorta confused is the narrator the sixten yr old in the novel herself?

    the author starts with the book with a note to the reader and i got the impression that its her
    and she dedicated this book to her father who she said first told her these stories.
    so is it her or what?

  6. 6 Kishore

    Farrah,
    It is her. And it is not her.
    If that’s confusing, let me explain. If you’ve read any of Michael Crichton, the story begins as early as the Acknowledgement/Prologue even while we assume its just the factual intoduction and the fiction part is yet to begin. He starts saying facts and mingles fiction in a way such that the reader would never know where fact ends and where fiction begins!

    Similarly, The Historian is narrated in a way that – in the story “there is an author who writes a book and dedicates it to her dad”. And That book happens to be named The Historian.


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