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03.30.2005

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the bookshelf:
t
hriller me this by Yee-Fan Sun |
1 2
continued from page 1 

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
buy it

The Historian's narrator is just sixteen years old when, alone one evening in the home she shares with her diplomat father in Amsterdam, she innocently pokes around in the library of his study -- and ends up discovering a very old book and a stack of yellowing letters stashed away on one of the top shelves. "My dear and unfortunate successor," begins the first letter, and from there, things only get stranger and creepier and more foreboding. She lets herself read just a few sentences more before her sense of guilt forces her to return her father's private papers to their hiding place, but by then, her curiosity is piqued. When she finally gets up the nerve to ask her father about her discovery, he greets her confession not with anger, but with a sigh of resignation, a look of deep sadness and even fear. The story he proceeds to tell her about the book, the letters, and what followed after he came to possess them takes her into a world she never could have imagined, one in which history and folklore come vividly to life and Dracula -- yes, he of I-vant-to-suck-your-blood fame -- is undead and well, still walking the earth 500 years after his execution.

The Historian actually juggles three storylines from three different eras. The oldest takes place in the 1930s, with a young history professor named Bartolomeo Rossi becoming convinced, through extensive research, that Dracula really lives, and traveling to Turkey and Romania in pursuit of proof. Another takes place in the 1950s, with Professor Rossi disappearing under suspicious circumstances, and his favorite graduate student Paul, the narrator's father, picking up on Rossi's trail -- with the help of a fiercely intelligent Romanian anthropology grad student named Helen (the narrator's long-dead mother, and, as it turns out, Rossi's unacknowledged daughter). The third, of course, takes place in the 1970s of the novel's present, and begins with the narrator finding her father's hidden letters, and eventually setting off on an adventure of her own.

No doubt about it: this is a mystery-adventure-thriller for the nerdy set, providing plenty of suspenseful entertainment and bouncing us from one moodily exotic locale after another, but balancing the fun with meticulously well-researched historical detail. (Indeed, there's a section of the book just past the middle that does get a big too bogged down in the intricacies of Ottoman and Byzantine history for my taste, but the first half and last quarter of the book are so must-read-one-more-chapter captivating that it's well worth it to just skim through the few pedantic bits.) Sure, historians and other folks who study the past are everywhere in the adventure genre, but it's amazingly difficult to find fictional versions that haven't been ridiculously glamorized; buying most of those characters as intellectuals takes a supreme willingness to suspend one's disbelief. The historians of Kostova's novel, however, spend way more of their time with their noses buried in dusty books and ancient piles of papers than they do running around playing action hero -- in short, they seem like pretty believable academics, and Kostova clearly loves their braininess; she doesn't let their erudition make them a bore. They're allowed to geek out over learning about old monks' routes and peasant folklore and dragon iconry; they get genuine thrills from digging around old libraries and archives, instead of constantly being forced into one ludicrous punch-out or gunfight after another. They feel convincing; they feel real which is why we're able to genuinely feel something for these characters, to want things to work out for them in the end. And so we geek out right there along with them as they reason their way towards the truth. Though I have to admit that history was never my favorite subject in the school, Kostova's smart update of the age-old Dracula tale reminds me of why some folks can't get enough about history: it's full of real stories about real people; it brings the dead to life, preserving them for eternity. The Historian is a genuine pleasure for heart and soul and brain alike.

o

check out these related articles:
persepolis | summer reading 2004 | summer reading 2003 | travelogues

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