The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian By Elizabeth KostovaThe Historian was published back in 2005 and while I remember it being a bestseller at the time, I never got round to reading it, despite its connection to my favourite literary character: Dracula. What probably put me off slightly was that the Dracula of this novel is really not Stoker's Count Dracula but Vlad the Impaler, the mediaeval Wallachian war lord whose name and aristocratic heritage Stoker borrowed for his book. Had this novel been published seven years earlier than it was, I'd no doubt have read it for my dissertation on Dracula, but as such, I never got around to it until now.

The Historian is not a horror novel and neither would I really call it a gothic one. It was marketed as literary fiction but if it reminds me of anything, it reminds me slightly of The Da Vinci Code (with the notable differences that the prose isn't as terrible and it moves a lot more slowly).

It's the story of three generations of scholars. The story starts with an unnamed narrator, a teenage girl who finds, in 1972, a mysterious antique book with an image of a dragon associated with Vlad the Impaler in the centre. When she shows it to her father, Paul - an American academic specialising in European history - he explains that he found the book as a graduate student in the 1950s. He took it to his professor, Bartholomew Rossi, who then explains how he in turn found an identical book back in 1930. The rest of the story is told by the unnamed narrator, Paul and Rossi, as in three different decades they travel across central and Eastern Europe in search of Vlad Dracula, whom they believe to be still alive.

This is a long book and, I have to say, I found it an ultimately frustrating one. The idea of the book is great, but the execution? Not so much.

First of all, the three narrators' voices are almost identical, which considering the differences in their backgrounds and time periods, is both unconvincing and something of a missed opportunity. There isn't really anything that distinguishes them as characters - I would struggle to think of a single personality trait displayed by any of them.

The book also moves very slowly, with the characters making numerous journeys across Europe, and while each location and its people are described at length, they're once again insufficiently distinct from one another. Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and even Turkey all seem to blend into one blurry mass of Foreign, and all this makes an already over-long novel feel even longer. I've only been to one of those countries, so I can't comment on the realism of this, but I do know that the sections set in England don't ring especially true to me as a native Englishwoman.

The mysteries of the plot should, in theory, be engaging and the historical detective work should be exciting - there's a lot of mysterious libraries, monastery crypts, arcane symbols and so on - but it's all rather episodic and lacking in both pace and atmosphere. It begins well and ends well, but the lengthy middle section feels repetitive, and - crucially, given that it's a novel about pursuing an undead vampire - at no point is it even slightly unsettling or eerie. There's something oddly flat about The Historian, which is a great pity as it could have been excellent.