Evil and the nature of the Good
by Keith Taylor
The quick way of summarizing Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian - a 650-page novel about vampires - does not come close to describing her accomplishment. Vampire books create expectations - prose perhaps a little overdone and lots of blood. The prose in Kostova's novel is exquisitely crafted, always clear and understated, and she was obviously working to avoid any but the most necessary gore. Her search for Dracula - even her version of Dracula himself - is almost entirely intellectual. And the success of her novel is that it remains completely spooky even as it stretches our brains.
She makes us care deeply about her characters. We follow the journeys - spiritual and physical - of three generations of historians as they follow the often obscure traces of the Undead through ancient and popular texts. These people - grandfather, daughter and son-in-law, and granddaughter - will drop everything to travel around the world to visit an unknown archive (an extraordinary amount of time in this book takes place in libraries), where they often find their lives and souls in ultimate peril. The book is structured around the ways they find to tell each other about their fascinating and terrifying discoveries. The reader often finds himself in a letter inside a document quoted in another letter. Another measure of Kostova's success is her ability to jumble all these documents and keep a strong - even compulsive - narrative drive propelling her readers forward.
These smart and courageous historians also find a way to love each other, and a way to protect that love even under the assault of unimaginable evil. Suddenly, readers find themselves thinking about the nature of love, and considering that perhaps anything we imagine as "good" is bound to our own mortality. It's an odd place to find oneself in the middle of a "vampire book."
Kostova spent ten years researching The Historian, traveling widely in Eastern Europe, learning languages and gleaning stories from obscure
but picturesque places. Of all the attractions of this smart and frightening page-turner, one of the greatest is her description of places in Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the south of France. For instance, she describes a Bulgarian monastery that may or may not hide the tomb of Dracula:
[It] sat among high barren hills, partly forested and partly bare rock, close to the narrow river; even in early summer, the landscape was already dry, and I could easily imagine how the monks must have valued that nearby source of water. The outer walls were the same dun-colored stone as the hills around them. The monastery roofs were fluted red ceramic tiles. . . . The entrance to the monastery was a yawning archway, as perfectly dark as a hole in the ground.
Suddenly physical description gets ominous, and the all-pervasive figure of Dracula colors even the landscape.
This novel has gained an unprecedented international "buzz," but Ann Arbor's Elizabeth Kostova celebrates the launch of The Historian on her home turf - at the downtown Borders on Tuesday, June 14, and at Nicola's Books on Thursday, June 23.
[Originally published in June, 2005.]