For readers anticipating long winter nights and unafraid to read in the dark, I highly recommend The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This modern gothic mystery swirls around the history and myth of Vlad Tepes of Wallachia, commonly known as Dracula. Before the novel’s completion, publishers bid for the rights to her first novel, a fact that encouraged me to dig into the lengthy book (642 pages). I buried myself in the novel which rewarded my time and patience with a clever plot structure, spooky suspense, interesting medieval European history, superb writing, and a fascinating unearthing of the character of Dracula.
The first narrator of the novel is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in Amsterdam in 1972 with her father, a diplomat, who has established The Center for Peace and Democracy. The mystery of her mother’s disappearance pains her father so much that the topic is never discussed. Browsing through her father’s library, she discovers a strange book guarding an even stranger letter dated December 12, 1930, which begins, “My dear and unfortunate successor.” From that point, the majority of the story is told in her father’s letters and memoirs which slowly illuminate the mysteries of his past.
Once bitten by the intrigue of the search for Dracula’s crypt, the end of each chapter tempts the reader to read on just a bit more. The story travels around Europe from Oxford University, England, to a thousand-year-old monastery in southern France, to Istanbul, and to the Communist satellite countries of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Each location yields another clue to the vampire’s machinations. Kostova beautifully describes cities like Budapest and rural areas so long trapped behind the Iron Curtain enticing you to visit these exotic destinations.
As we learn Vlad the Impaler’s history, we also discover the history of these Eastern European countries. Their medieval past is filled with conflict between Eastern Orthodox Christians and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire which may help to explain the persistence of the Dracula legend.
Although I didn’t resort to stuffing garlic in my pockets, Kostova’s writing style is convincing. Her descriptions create vivid mind pictures, especially of the macabre. When we finally meet Dracula, Kostova horrifies with details: “His mouth I saw now, was closed in a hard smile, ruby and curving under his wiry, dark mustache. At one corner of his lips I saw a stain of drying blood - oh, God, how that made me recoil. The sight of it was terrible enough, but the immediate realization that it was probably mine, my own blood, made my head swim.”
The story also convinces because the main characters are serious historians who seek reliable sources in revered libraries. The revelation of these historical facts merging with the mystery of the occult can conflict for some readers. However, this will not stop the lover of historical fiction as the success of The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four attests.
If you are one who likes to makes sense of all your reading, then you could approach the entire Dracula subject as a metaphor for evil. Dracula may not exist, but Hitler and Stalin did. Perhaps, like Dracula, evil exists below the surface, only waiting to rise from the dark. If you read to escape, The Historian definitely will entertain with excellent writing, a compelling mystery, a little history, and travel to far away places.