In Brief: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a character-driven novel that follows Cold War-era scholars from two generations across Europe in search of one of history’s greatest fiends. The book lives and breathes through its narrators as they uncover archival clues, lost texts, and letters while trying to avoid the dark reach of their quarry.
Pros: Beautifully written, with strong accessible characters, The Historian takes the best narrative elements of historical mystery in pop culture (think Indiana Jones, Dan Brown) without dumbing it down. The descriptive prose and sometime heart-wrenching interactions are first-rate.
Cons: Not many. The book is long, sprawling, and never in a hurry. Could be a detriment to less patient readers. The action of the final climax is strangely brief and understated – perhaps to avoid clichés or maybe because Kostova just wasn’t sure how to treat it.
Review: The Historian, as it’s title demands, is about the pursuit of knowledge of the past. A search for truth, meaning, and understanding through the records and documents of our forebears. The story focuses on this captial ‘H’ history as well as the personal history of the narrator, Julia, and her family. Julia is about sixteen in 1972 when she discovers some strange letters in her father’s study. Addressed to “an unfortunate successor”, they hint at a scholarly search for historical truth that somehow led to the demise of the author. When Julia confronts her father, he confesses that the letters originated from his mentor and graduate advisor, Dr. Rossi, and begins to tell their tale. Julia quickly realizes how unwilling her father is to tell this story. His sorrow and concern are profound, and she begins to understand that he is telling her also about his own past, while hinting at the fate of Julia’s notably absent mother.
Kostova moves into a series of receding distant first-person narrators as the story unfolds. Dr. Rossi, through his letters, and Julia’s father, Paul, actually tell more of the story than Julia. The problem is, the narrators – all historians, highly intelligent, articulate, book-worms – are a little too similar. The 1st person voices, not that distinctive, tend to blur together. Fortunately there are ample other factors to outweigh this minor complaint.
First and foremost: the crux of the plot. Within the first several chapters Paul conveys the beginning of the mystery: a strange old book he found at his study carrel those years ago, as he was finishing his dissertation. It was a journal that opened in the center to a sinister woodcut of a dragon with one word inscribed on the page. Drakulya.
When Paul shows the book to his mentor, Dr. Rossi, the older man seems very concerned and shows Paul his own identical copy. He begins to convey his own journey twenty years earlier on a quest to track down details about the book and its links to the legendary Carpathian tyrant, Vlad Tepes. Through Rossi’s and Paul’s tales, we (through Julia) learn of their multi-generational quest to delve into the myth and reality of Dracula. In this sense the narrative has the best elements of historical mystery – the thrill and ambiance of ancient secrets finally uncovered, of sinister conspiracies and the truths beneath the veil of history. And, of course, we (and Julia) soon realize that Dracula is more than a legend, more than particularly gruesome Turk-fighter. He endures – as does his thirst for knowledge (among other things).
The other great pleasure of reading The Historian is the Paul’s character and how he relates to his daughter in the early chapters, followed by his interactions with Helen, Julia’s mother, as they meet, butt heads, and eventually fall in love. Paul is every bit the noble, selfless scholar. A man of letters, steady in his search to uncover the mysteries plaguing his loved ones. In Helen he finds a suitable opposite – the sardonic and fiery Eastern Bloc anthropologist with her own reasons for embarking on the quest.
Finally, the detail and care with which Kostava lays out the setting, whether in Istanbul, Budapest, or the remote mountains of Bulgaria is nicely done. The characters, scholars one and all, recognize and appreciate the cultural roots and nuance of the various places, and by extension, so do we as readers. The story is firmly set in the Cold War, which adds further nuance to the plot and interactions.
Bottom Line: The Historian moves at stately, sometimes plodding pace, and it’s not without its flaws, but the narrative and characters make this a must-read for those who love a good historical mystery.