The Historian

I want you to study the picture above very carefully. Notice how intricate, how very detailed it is. The more you look, the more you will discover about it. Quite obviously, that picture is something that’s been created with a lot of care and patience, very much like today’s book. In this post, I’m going to talk about The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. The book’s a product of ten years of research, and it shows.

Hmmm…how do I sum up this book? In the most straightforward way to put it: It’s a story about Dracula. And not only is it a story about Dracula, but it is also a story about history. I haven’t read Bram Stoker’s version of it, but this particular version of Dracula portrays him as Vlad Dracula, ruler of Wallachia, popularly called ‘Vlad the Impaler’, for the most gruesome reasons.

Please do not turn up your nose at it because it’s about a vampire. I should be the first person to cringe when I look at vampire novels, but this isn’t some frivolous teenage romance with some sparkly vampire wannabe. This book is an Amazon rain forest of detail.

Let’s start with the plot. To begin with, it has one, unlike most modern vampire fiction. One evening, a young woman is browsing through her father’s library, when she finds a strange woodcut book and a set of yellow-leaved letters addressed to ‘My Dear and Unfortunate Successor’. When she questions her father, she is slowly opened up to the mysterious world of  his past. And when her father vanishes one day, she decides to go find him.

Parallel to this, the reader gets to know what her father’s past is all about. When Paul (the girl’s father) finds an ancient woodcut book, he immediately takes it to his close friend and mentor at his university, Professor Rossi. And when Professor Rossi disappears, Paul, along with a young anthropologist named Helen, sets off to find him.

The reader is taken along a shower of medieval history, from Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Wallachia, and quite frankly, I find this detail astounding. I really, really appreciate the research done for this book. The facts are woven in so beautifully that you don’t even realise when the truth ends and the story begins.

Another noteworthy thing is the writing tool in use. Almost the entire book is told through letters–letters from Paul to his daughter, letters from Helen and Rossi…In fact, I don’t even think it’s correct to assume that Paul’s daughter is the central character. Truth be told, The Historian is Paul’s story.

I like the characters. Apart from Paul’s daughter (I am completely indifferent to her, I neither like her, nor hate her. She holds no significance in my life), the characters are wondrous, and there are so many to choose from. Paul is likable, though I adore Helen much more. My favourite characters are Turgut Bora and his wife: they’re so lovable.

There is a lot of romance in this book, but it’s done tactfully, and is understated without being irrelevant. In fact, I’d say the romance is done beautifully. And take it from someone who hates romance in novels with a vengeance–when I say it’s good, it’s great. It’s almost like poetry.

This book is really, really well-done. I personally congratulate Kostova on this masterpiece.

However, the one thing I find unnerving is that it’s a very difficult book to get through. Which is not to say that the writing is bad. Au contraire, the craftsmanship of this book is something that generates awe. When I say it’s difficult to get through, I mean that the same things that make it wonderful–the detail, the writing style, the plot–also make it a bit mentally tiring. There is a lot of information coming at you from all angles, and your brain is constantly at work, trying to systematically sort out everything you’ve read so far. I’ve noticed how while reading it–especially the important parts–I had to stop and absorb what I’d read so I didn’t get confused. Though the book was worth it in the end, it’s not something I appreciate doing.

On the whole, I liked it. Yes, it is a bit difficult, but the story is captivating, and once you’re in the flow of things, you really enjoy it. It’s a very sophisticated novel as compared to what’s in the market these days, so it takes some getting used to.  But you really should read it because it is an elegant, intelligent novel that you won’t forget in a hurry.

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