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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Vlad Lit: don't flirt with it, just sink your teeth right in
Sunday 14 August 2005
Elizabeth Kostova follows the doorstopper route with this 642-page debut, but no one would dare accuse her of flirting with anything, not when her writing style takes itself so very, very seriously. Her starting point is a late 19th-century text that just loves to flirt with diaries and letters - Bram Stoker's Dracula. The daughter of an American historian living in Amsterdam in 1972 discovers a cache of strange letters in her father's library and implores him to tell her what they mean on their first trip away together.
Her father, Paul, tells her that one evening, just after the war while he was still a graduate student, he was left a faded leather book with a picture of a dragon inside carrying the word "Drakulya". He asked his professor, Bartholomew Rossi, about it and Rossi explained that he, too, once received such a book. Then Rossi disappears, people start to die in strange circumstances and Paul decides to go in search of him.
At the same time that Paul's daughter is learning this story 30 years later, Paul himself disappears to the south of France, and she heads off to find him. The search stories parallel each other: Paul is led through one Eastern European state after another, learning more about the Dracula story as he goes, just as his daughter discovers not only the truth about Dracula but about her own parentage and legacy.
Spiritual journeys as well as physical ones; the foreshadowing of a modern world where Islam and Christianity are at loggerheads; a medieval world that Vlad the Impaler once ruled with despotism and butchery close at hand. These larger themes are embedded in Kostova's story - so embedded, in fact, that a 1970s-set tale sounds curiously 19th-century - and told by that old favourite, the unreliable narrator (we never discover the heroine's name, and so much of the story is unverifiable, first-person oral accounts re-told in letters or as flashbacks). But ultimately, Kostova's addition to the postmodern take on historical fiction is just a little too respectful and surprisingly lacking in sensuality, given its subject matter.
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