Friday, October 14, 2005

The Historian

How much did I love The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova? While reading, I never once flipped ahead to see how it would end. I read the last 50 pages slowly, because I didn't want the book to end. And, even tho it's over 600 pages, when I got to the end I wished for more.

The Plot: The sixteen year old narrator stumbles across an old book of her father's. She discovers that the book is part of something more: that her father had discovered that Dracula was real and spent years tracking him down. He relates his search to his daughter and she is pulled into the mystery, and into the danger, as it quickly becomes apparent that this all has something to do with the death of her mother when she was a baby.

The Good: Saying everything isn't enough, is it?

In an interview in the Guardian, TH was called "Buffy With Books."

TH tells several stories at once, layering them brilliantly. The narrator begins at some future point in her life, looking back at her 16th year; then there is the story her father tells of his Dracula quest; and the story of his own mentor's search for the truth. I was impressed with how well this worked; how something in one story ties into the other, how the "reveals" are paced.

I loved the research. How can someone solve a mystery if they aren't looking things up? By using historians as detectives, Kostova provides new depth of research. It's not just reading a bunch of letters, it's taking note of the order they are found in because that might be important. It's not just looking at a document or a fact or a story in isolation.

Kostova makes the research process come alive, makes it exciting. The characters find a document that sheds some light on the mystery of Dracula, but that document also points the way to another item or another possible source, and of course they have to go to the new place to find it. What makes this exciting: it's set in pre-Internet days, so the people literally have to pick up and go to find that new bit of information. And some of it is set during the Cold War, with much of the research taking place in Eastern Europe, so the travel arrangements aren't easy. The search is also a race, a chase, a running away, because there are sources at work -- Dracula and his minions -- who want to prevent the searchers from finding out the true story.

Kostova shares the full text (or at least the important bits!) with the reader, so engages us in the story. If I figured out something a bit before the characters, they weren't far behind me.

What else? In addition to the mystery elements and the detective story and the research and the history, there is also romance. And travel.

Finally, I loved that at no point does Kostova present her "history" as real. She's not pretending that Vlad the Impaler really was Dracula and these documents do exist. Some of the stuff in here may be "real", some may not. It doesn't really matter, because they are real in the context of the story, and that is what counts.

My only pet peeve: terrible binding. My copy from the library was already falling apart.

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