#95: The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova

Before there was Twilight, there were hundreds of vampire tales that caught the attention of readers.   Books like The Vampire Chronicles by Ann Rice, reminded us that vampires were evil creatures who preyed on humankind. Of course, the most famous of these tales in modern history is Dracula by Bram Stoker. Stoker told us how cruel and unscrupulous vampires were:  He told us they thrived on human blood, lived in the dark, crawled up walls over castles, and stole our beautiful women through slow, painful transformation to vampire forms themselves.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova used Stoker’s well-known description of vampire lore and created a modern story of a young woman and her father.  Kostova explains, “Dracula is a metaphor for the evil that is so hard to undo in history” (Jane Sullivan, “Dracula and the Human Factor”, The Age (3 June 2006).   With this in mind, Kostova created this novel.   Told from multiple perspectives, that of a professor named Paul, his un-named daughter, and Paul’s mentor, the story weaves together various lives intercepted by the history of Vlad the Impaler, Stoker’s inspiration for his fictional Dracula (for those not familiar, here is a brief History Channel bio).

Most of the story takes the form of letters and oral histories, but the main narrator is a young, unnamed daughter of a college professor.   It is never completely clear if this narrator is unbiased, or reliable; she is sharing with us, the reader, stories told to her over time and to which she is emotionally invested.  Still, the tale is true to the grotesqueness of Stoker’s story.  There is mystery and murder, it isn’t clear who is helping Paul (spoiler!) learn more about the death of his mentor, Bartholomew Rossi
and who is trying to prevent him from solving this mystery.  While reading the details, it can be difficult to decipher what is really happening, and what is speculation of the character who is telling the story at the time.  It’s an interesting mix of potentially unreliable narrators and hyperbolic storytelling.

I read this book a few years ago – I believe I found it while browsing in Borders Books – and thought of it recently when my sister, parents, and I were emailing about our Irish family history on St. Patrick’s Day.  I loved how, in The Historian, the reader isn’t really sure if what is being told to us has really happened – are vampires really real? – and I think a lot of that happens with family histories.  We know so little about what our great-great-great grandparents were like, and have to speculate and put the pieces together.  My family is really lucky because my father has a passion for ancestry and can find out all sorts of details.  It’s tempting to write it all down, like the narrator in The Historian, and elaborate on all the little details until we have a historical account of family vampires.  What can you find Old Man?


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