Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Ten-pages-in book review: The Historian

I started writing my ten-pages-in book reviews after a book so knocked my socks off that I was worried I'd never love a book in the same way again. That book, The Time Traveler's Wife, was easily one of the best books I've ever read.

Here we are, just over a year later, and I've finally found a worthy successor, another book in which I have completely lost myself, not to mention track of time when I'm reading and a will to do anything but curl myself around it and see what happens next.

I'm reading The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova's debut novel ten years in the writing. I had heard enough buzz about the book to request it from the library, but it took a full five months for my name to claw its way to the front of the queue and by then, I had pretty much forgotten whatever I'd heard about it. When I flipped open the dust jacket and read it was a historical novel about Dracula, I almost put it aside unread. I'd done the same to Anne Rice's latest tome, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I read about two pages and a good chunk of the author's notes at the end, but I just couldn't commit myself.

But this book, The Historian - this book, I couldn't put down after two pages. From the first five paragraphs, I was hooked. True, it is about Dracula, but more importantly it's a set of intertwining quest stories, an exploration of the relationship between fathers and daughters, a whole series of mysteries, a romance, a suspense story and just about the spookiest thing I've read since the latest Stephen King novel. Reading it on the back deck in the blazing June sun, there was more than one instance when my skin puckered in goosebumps at a particularly eerie turn. It's a damn good book, an amazing book, and I'm quite distracted to be sitting here telling you about it when I know it's waiting for me, only half-way finished, upstairs.

The book jumps back and forth in time to follow three storylines. In the current day, it's 1972 and a motherless sixteen-year-old American girl living in Amsterdam with her diplomat father stumbles upon a secret from her father's past. She finds a mysteriously blank book, save for a rather eerie woodcut of a dragon, and a series of letters that begin, "My dear and unfortunate successor." As the story unfolds, her father, Paul, tells his own story of his quest some twenty years earlier to prove that Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler, was not only real, but still 'alive'. His story also tells the story of his own mentor's quest to prove the same thing some twenty years before that, and the three stories weave a tight rope of surprisingly linear narrative. Stories inside stories inside stories, like riddles and reflections and ripples in time - it's a breath-taking and sweeping story told with exquisite attention to place and detail. When Paul disappears in the current day, his daughter sets off across Europe to find him, and instead finds evil pursuing her.

As I said, I'm about half way through. So far, Kostova seems to have figured out what I once read Stephen King speak to - that the monster you can't see is far more frightening than the monster you can. At this point, the evil is only just beginning to reveal itself, although its presence has been alluded to and foreshadowed by the layers of congruent stories.

It could be overwrought and over the top. It's not. It could have the gothic grotesques and arabesques that Anne Rice brought to Interview with the Vampire and so many of her other books. It doesn't. What it has is incredible attention to atmospheric detail, so you truly feel like you are in Istanbul in the 1950s, or in Radcliffe Camera on the campus of Oxford University in 1972, or in the court of Sultan Mehmed in the fifteen century. And it has a rollercoaster of a plot, with twists and dives and hairpin turns that will keep you awake at night. And it has compelling characters, characters with whom you are fully engaged from the first time they are sketched out on the page.

I'm conflicted - should I continue to elaborate on how simply gobsmacked I am by this fabulous book, or should I shut this down and go read it some more?

Right. Good choice. See ya!

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