The Historian: Book Review

As an English undergraduate, there were many (many, many, many) books that I picked up with the intention of reading…and never finished. A lot of them, I never even started.

I mentioned that a few posts back in a review on The Strain series and the connected TV show. After reading and watching that series, it seemed natural to continue dealing with the undead, It felt natural to remain on a path of vampires, and to revisit another failed reading attempt. Amazon tells me that I bought the Kindle copy of The Historian in August 2012, probably a similar time to The Strain: clearly, my brain was in that same vampiric world as I am now.

I actually remembered buying a physical copy of this even before that: I had bought it with the intention of reading for the purposes of my dissertation, but found it too rich and heavy to use as a secondary source and commentary; a work such as this required far more attention than I could find, and it was parked for a couple of years.

Such is my life: parking books for over a decade and returning to them with the same fervour I had at the beginning.

The Historian follows a world of stories within stories, many of which are written in a fashion to appear honest and reliable. Our unnamed narrator, written in a fashion that we could believe is perhaps the book’s author Elizabeth Kostova, discusses her relationship with her father Paul. The narrator has no memory of her mother, and her father does not go into detail as to her whereabouts. With an opening reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though, it becomes obvious as to where the story should go. While Paul takes his daughter on tours of various European locations, usually coinciding with his work, Paul tells his daughter about his early work as a historian. The narrative is told starting with there stories-within-stories. The narrative takes on a form of head-hopping, but it is bearable, usually forecast as a chapter ends with the introduction to a story that is then told in the next chapter.

This continues throughout the book, but by the time our narrator reaches adulthood, she begins looking the truths behind her father’s stories, and she finds some elements that suggest that her father is not a wholly reliable narrator.

The book is mostly told through some form of this conversation between characters who will talk about their own experiences in their own voice. The book eventually develops beyond the father/daughter relationship to add other steps to the narrative: stories within stories, histories within histories, characters within characters that touch on the origin of these vampire stories.

Such storytelling is initially beautiful, albeit a bit frustrating: by the time I reached the halfway point of the book however, I’d started to find this form of narrative frustrating, repetitive and a little boring, wanting the book to focus on just one character and their narration. Or, the violent streak in me, wanted the book to just get to its grand vampiric denouement, a closure that it, unfortunately, never reaches. It is somewhat appropriate that the book focuses on history itself rather than grandiose action, but I would have loved just a touch more action and less conversation about conversations.

Somewhere in my heart, I love a good vampire story, and the beginning of The Historian promised to do just that. However, the book forgets about the vampire regularly, leaving just more conversations . By the time the book reaches for a grand finale, the ‘action’ of this beat feels rushed, nearly confusing with the way it races though its vampire mythology so it can reach an emotional, and somewhat plebeian ending, an ending that isn’t sufficient for the various characters it has introduced.

I would have adored this book at about half the length, or with some more blood and guts (and less history… despite the name.) Its narrator is likeable enough as a child, but her progression towards adulthood removes some of the magic and awe that one expects from a younger character starting to understand the threats of a world around. her.

Unfortunately,I know that my thoughts on the book are probably more focussed on my own preferences, desperately wanting some vampiric blood and violence. But I guess I’m biased in that respect.

After all, the book is not called The Vampire.

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