Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

I’m quite surprised at myself for being able to finish this whopper of a book (704 pages in tiny, tiny – and sometimes even tinier – print). Only until a couple of months ago I could hardly finish ANY book, let alone a mighty chunkster of these proportions. But then I got myself out of the slump by reading John Green (The Fault In Our Stars) and it all went smoothly thereon. The fact that I can’t look at a computer screen anymore without hurting my eyes for hours on end has helped my reading craving too (as well as  my ukulele-playing skills). And the fact that sometimes I can’t even read because my eyes hurt too much, makes me want to read even more. So yeah, even though it’s going to hurt, I really REALLY want to talk about this book. It’s such a perfect time for a book like this now. I look outside the window and it’s the mistiest weather I have even seen. It’s drizzly and eerie and mysterious and atmospheric exactly like how The Historian feels. On such a day, I’ve gone and read its last page. So, what is this book about? It’s about many things, but mostly it’s about Dracula. I didn’t even realise it was, when I started it. If I did, I might have put it aside, to be honest. The only way I like my vampires is when they’re slain by Buffy (or when she occasionally shags them). I wouldn’t want to read 700+ pages on them. I have never even read Dracula! So I started reading unaware of anything(I did have a vague notion that it was a horror/gothic story but nothing more than that) except that the beginning sounded promising. The first couple of pages were enough to draw me in. Then on chapter 2, the narrator’s father finds a Mysterious Book that doesn’t have anything written on except for the word DRAKULYA and the picture of a dragon in the middle and it’s old and smelly but he puts it away because he has more important things to do but the book doesn’t want to stay away and keeps reappearing MYSTERIOUSLY on his desk until he can’t ignore it no more. That’s what did it. I simply had to keep reading to find out what this book was and where it came from and why it wanted to be with our guy so bad. From then on it’s a roller-coaster of page-turning. But not in a fast-paced-thrilling-race-after-the-bad-guys kinda way. The book manages to take its time to build up tension and atmospheres but also – especially - characters and places. Its tone is quite gloomy and foreboding throughout, but there are many beautiful moments of tenderness and warmth and even happiness scattered around. I especially loved Paul and Helen’s developing relationship. I shipped them from the start, even though I didn’t need to work too hard on my shipping as it was quite obvious they were endgame. Still, I can’t resist my shipper heart, especially with two characters like them. Paul is gentle and kind caring and a great scholar to-be, but he’s also quite awkward around Helen, who is admittedly intimidating at first. But maybe that’s one of the reasons why I loved Helen the most, out of all the characters. She’s harsh and stern, but also extremely clever and resourceful, with a sharp sense of humour. In short, she’s irresistible. To me and to Paul, as well. Except, I had the persistent feeling that he was more in love with her father, Prof. Rossi, than with her. Or at least, equally as in love.Beside Helen, my other favourite characters are all secondary ones. I LOVED Mr and Mrs Bora. More as a couple than individually, still, they are both the absolute adorbz in their own right. Also, Mrs Bora made me salivate over all those magnificent dishes she kept serving. Now that I think of it, I salivated quite a lot over all the delicious things these people got to taste around the world. They might have been in danger of being turned into vampires any minute, but they sure kept themselves well fed. Another character who stole my heart and made it ache like nobody’s business is Helen’s mother. The tragedy of her story is almost unbearable. That she remained so kind and loving even after all that is a miracle and it makes me love her even more. Then there was Baba Yanka, with her mighty, ancestral singing voice. Such a striking character. I really enjoyed learning about those traditions and folklore but most of all, I loved meeting her and wished we had had more time with her. Except there was Dracula’s tomb to find, so there wasn’t much time to waste.
Of course, being called The Historian and all that, there was quite a lot of history talk. I learned a great deal about the Byzantines and the Ottoman Empire and its sultans, not to mention Wallachia, which I didn’t even know it was a place that existed, before. It certainly made me want to visit all those places, not to retrace their history as I’m no historian, but to experience even a little of all that beauty described in the story. Budapest, Bulgaria, Istanbul, the Romanian woods… they weren’t places I necessarily wanted to visit before, but now they have acquired a certain mythological resonance. I don’t believe I’ll be able to experience them the same as they are described in the book, but I’d be interested in going anyway, even if only to taste all that amazing food!

There are a few minor criticisms that don’t take away from my enjoyment of it, but do need to be mentioned briefly. One is the suspension of belief I had to force on me anytime I read Paul’s narrative, which supposedly was written as a letter to his daughter. Those letters were way too detailed and way too personal to feel authentic. Especially as they were recounting facts happened so many years before, and that he mentioned at the beginning how he was in an awful hurry. I am grateful that they were told this way, as I experienced them as a narrative and not real letters, but because of that I had to forget that they were supposed to be letters. Another small thing is how Helen refers to herself as “Helen” as opposed to “Elena” which is how she’d been called all her life, prior to going to America. Especially later, when she’s talking to her father, or to anyone else for that matter. One does not change name so easily just to suit an American audience. And lastly, and a little sadly, I never managed to grow fond of the first narrator, Paul’s daughter. It started out promisingly, I was ready to invest on her, but then as the story drifts away from her and focuses on past events, I found myself resenting the bits about her, as the past was a lot of more intriguing and I was impatient to go back to it. I was glad we got to spend more time with her parents, but at the same time, we lost the opportunity to care for another character, who initially promised to be worthy of being cared for.

Even though I mentioned earlier that it's a book mostly about Dracula, i've hardly mentioned him. That's because, even though the vampire story is the drive that brings the story forward and it was fascinating and morbid just enough to keep you interested, what made me love the book were the other "many things" the book is about. The love for knowledge, and the curiosity that fuels this love. The strong bond between the characters, may it be romantic feelings or deep, pure friendship or simple motherly love. They are so enduring and absolute, possibly to counteract all the hatred and cynicism and cruelty emanating from Dracula.  
So what I'm saying is, don't worry if you're not into vampires. And don't worry if you are into vampires. There's something for everyone. Now go read it.

2 comments:

guiltless reader said...

I adore this book. I:m not a huge Buffy fan nor am I a sparkly vampire fan , and I got started on vampires with Anne Rice, so this is more along the lines I've always known vampires.

So glad you enjoyed it! And the 700+ pages goes quickly, doesn't it?!

valentina said...

Anne Rice is not really my thing either, but this one flew by, yeah :)