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
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