Saturday, August 06, 2005

Elizabeth Kostova - The Historian

Everyone’s writing historical thrillers, it seems. This is the only one I’ve read which actually contains elements of the supernatural though.
Forgive me for not comparing this to the Da Vinci Code, which I haven’t read.

I have rather a weak stomach when it comes to horror or the supernatural. As a result I stayed up till 3 reading the book, with my back to the wall, and casting nervous glances at my window. A fact: Vlad himself is not nearly as frightening as that librarian.

Anyway. The story. A sixteen-year-old girl finds a mysterious book and a bundle of letters in her father’s library. When confronted, he begins to tell her the story of how he and her mother tried to discover the tomb of Dracula. Much of the narrative unfolds through letters – her father’s friend and advisor wrote the details of his search in letter form in the 1930s, and the father himself completes his narrative in letters when he has to hurry away.
It’s really rather good. Character is allowed to develop, despite the fact that most of the characters in question are known to us only through other people’s letters. Kustova has picked on one of my favourite periods in history (the “fall” of Constantinople) and she writes it well. She doesn’t talk down to the reader and assume s/he is ignorant, nor does she act as if she expects them to know everything, and throw too much information at them (a la Foucault’s Pendulum). Paul and Helen are both extremely intelligent (Helen’s a genius, apparently) but they don’t know everything, and we see them learning with us.

The book moves at a lovely, leisurely pace, with some gorgeous descriptive passages. Jabberwock's right to hope for a travel book from her. Her descriptions of Eastern Europe (a place I’ve never seen but would love to) and Istanbul (my spiritual home) are extremely beautiful.

But the ending. *sigh* No, it wasn’t awful, but it was rather a disappointment. The confrontation with Dracula is a little cheesy, and there’s far too much Happily-ever-after-ing. The long dead mother isn’t really dead; ‘Master James’ gets his revenge, and Vlad’s a little heap of dust. And then the forced “…but now he’s back” feel right at the end, like a generic horror movie preparing itself for a sequel. Not enough to spoil the book, but enough to make it less than perfect.