Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Review: The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

I've never understood the fascination with vampires. Or rather, I should say I think I understand it, but I just don't share it.

The fixation comes, I would propose, from two things: the Gothic love of blood and death (that seemingly innate appeal that brings a host of skulls and ghosts to every store at Halloween), and the human yearning for immortality. It is these elements which have rendered the vampire such a potent figure of folklore through the years, and all the more so as our world grows less mysterious and such creatures consequently more mythic.

Fortunately for me, Kostova made no attempt to romanticize the undead as in Twilight, or every book by Ann Rice, save in the single figure of Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler - commonly known as Count Dracula - and then only to a minor degree, as a lover of learning. What historian wouldn't want such a library, after all, and all eternity to study? Still, this plays only a very small part in the larger narrative, although the author's own love of books and manuscripts is obvious throughout.

As a work of historical fiction this novel succeeds to a large extent (even though Vlad the Impaler is the only historical personage in the entire book), if only on the extent of background information imparted by the author. Clearly a great deal of research went into it, and Kostova claims to have spent ten years completing it, inspired by stories of Dracula her father told her as a child while living in Slovenia. Consequently, she is ideally suited to write this story. However, as a work of suspense and horror it failed completely to convince me. This is in great part due to the fact that there is very little action or suspense throughout its nearly one thousand pages, and what there is is interspersed between lengthy dissertations as the characters sit reading in one library or another. I also detest first person narratives, as innately shallow and limited in scope. That said, the prose is well written, and the content interesting enough to keep me reading.

One final note, however, is that I found the ending wholly unsatisfying, as one of those too easy culminations which leave you wondering why someone didn't just do that five hundred pages ago if that's all it took. It's like the building crescendo of a drum roll that ends with a rim shot.

What brought me to read this monstrosity was not its subject, or my general interest in historical fiction (which it really is only marginally), but the fact that it was a debut work of fiction which fetched a price of two million bucks and a marketing campaign of another half a million, which of course resulted in an astounding amount of copies sold. How a book this long and tedious got the interest of an agent, let alone a publisher is beyond me, but it just goes to show that miracles can still happen in this day and age.

Rating: 3 out of 5