Monday, September 01, 2008

book review: "The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova

Elizabeth Kostova

“The Historian” begins with a young girl who discovers a book and several letters hidden in her father’s library, and inadvertently triggers a journey into the past and the continuation of the centuries-old search for Vlad the Impaler, also known as Dracula.

Although the novel has lost some of its intensity for me on the second reading, I am still struck by how well Elizabeth Kostova has created an atmosphere of suspense laced with danger. She makes you want to look behind your back, and the unlit corners of your room and the dark alleys on the streets too, to see if anyone is watching. She paints vivid descriptions of the places she takes you to, as well – exotic Istanbul, the forbidding mountains of Romania…

I also like how Kostova portrays vampires as terrible creatures, and their victims suspended between life and death; not the glamorous creatures popularized by Anne Rice and the like. The movement away from the Dracula of pop culture – with his slicked-back hair, black cape with high collar, fangs dripping with blood – is also refreshing.

We in the present, who are fascinated with history because our experience of it is vicarious, only read about in books and seen on film, are reminded that what we now consider history was once real for the people who lived it. And Kostova shows us how it feels when history comes alive, as her characters experience firsthand.

Ultimately, however, I feel that this is a story about loss. The narrator loses her mother as a young child; Paul, the narrator’s father, loses his mentor and friend; Professor Rossi loses someone dear to him, and even loses the memory of that loss. Kostova lets each character reclaim what has been lost, but only briefly. So which is more painful, the first loss or the second?

“Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” – Pablo Neruda


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