The Historian was published to a cacophony of hype. I recall it sounding quite good at the time, though not (apparently) good enough to break it out of the chains of my TBR shelves, where it had languished from 2006 until this spring. In April, I picked it up to take with me on Reading Week. Reading Week is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: an annual holiday with a group of friends, for which we hire a big self-catering house (in the Peak District, this year) for a week and sit around reading books, talking about books, and drinking wine. It seemed like a good start: a chunky historical-supernatural potboiler about Dracula to ease me into the week.
Any normal person probably would have given up the ghost after the deeply annoying prologue - on which more below - or else after not one but two people in that house in the Peak District glanced at the cover of my book, grimaced with recognition, and said, "Oh, that," in tones of loathing. Two people with really quite dissimilar tastes in books had tried it, judged it, and found it wanting.
I could have stopped there. I should have.
But no, I soldiered on. Thanks to my obsessive-compulsive inability to ever give up on a book once I've started it (how could you abandon a book half-read? what if it suddenly turns sublime in the last chapter and changes your life?), I dragged myself through all 700 tedious, laboured pages, all the while gritting my teeth and sighing loudly and generally getting on everyone's nerves.
As noted above, the book gets off to a deeply uninspiring start, in an irritatingly mannered "Note to the Reader", wherein the narrator/'compiler' of the book meditates on the meaning of the events it recounts. So far, so cod-academic, and then we reach this gem, on the 15th-century milieu of a certain Dracula:
The more distant history within this story I have researched as carefully as I would any academic text. The glimpses of religious and territorial conflict between an Islamic East and a Judeo-Christian West will be painfully familiar to a modern reader.
Wait. Wait. Did you really just suggest that the 'West' in the time of Vlad III (1431-76) was in any meaningful sense "Judaeo-Christian"?
This is so utterly, utterly historically ignorant I barely know where to begin.
What, exactly, is 'the West' in this formulation? England, a country whose Jewish communities were expelled in 1290, and not allowed to return to until the 1650s? France, in which Jews were banned from living between 1394 and the early 17th century? Austria, where they were exiled in the 15th century? Shall I carry on, or just point Kostova to this handy map - on wikipedia! that's about as mainstream as information gets! - of how 'the West' treated Jews in this period and later? And that's not even going near the pogroms, the rafts of anti-Semitic legislation, the forced conversions, or the church- and state-endorsed extortion and theft.
Let's be clear, here. This ludicrously anachronistic, morally bankrupt piece of American jargon is a wilful erasure of centuries of massacres, torture, and institutionalised oppression, essentially because the author seems unable or unwilling to believe that - Dracula aside - anyone could give those evil Muslim Ottomans a run for their money in the uncivilised brutality stakes. After all, the Ottoman empire, as one character tells us, was "such a strange mixture of aesthetic refinement and barbaric tactics" (it's like Said never wrote Orientalism...). The reason Dracula is so evil is that he spent his formative years as a hostage at the Ottoman court, where he learned how to impale people (why he would bother going all the way to Edirne for that, since impaling was a punishment used in the 'Judaeo-Christian West' as well, I've no idea). Never mind that Ottoman law had a protected place for religious minorities, or that tens of thousands of Jews fled to the Ottoman empire after 1492 to escape the Spanish Inquisition. The Empire was by no means a place without suffering for Jews, but it was arguably a more stable one for them than the European alternative in this period. But no, no, none of that's important: just remember, 'West' good, 'East' bad.
The other part of the passage from the prologue quoted above - the bit about research, which clearly was not done - lets me segue from the offensive, to the simply vexing. Let's talk about one area where I can fairly quickly judge Kostova's research: the novel's image of Oxford, where a part of the action (well, 'action' - this is not a fast-moving book) is set.
Things get off to a poor start when the narrator gets off a bus on Broad Street (which one? the only bus that drops off on Broad Street is the open-topped tourist one), from where the Radcliffe Camera can apparently be seen. No, it can't; the Sheldonian Theatre can, though, so perhaps Kostova got her round buildings confused. The characters then enter a college on Broad Street which was apparently "endowed by Edward III, in the thirteenth century". Since Edward III wasn't even born until 1312, I find this unlikely. His dad Edward II founded a college in the 13th century, but that was Oriel, which is some way from Broad St (and definitely not "across the way" from the Radcliffe Camera, either). Hertford was founded right at the end of the 13th century (but not by any of the Edwards), and part of it is at the edge of Broad St and has a view of the Camera, so perhaps this is what she means, but by now I can pretty much guarantee I've already put more thought and research into this than Kostova did.
Nor do we have to nitpick Kostova's sense of history or her sense of place - although both are rather central to what the novel appears to be trying to do. Her shaky grasp of her own characters is enough. Take the present-day narrator's father, who is initially described by his daughter as unheathily buttoned-up:
Looking at him in his neat tweed jacket and turtleneck, I felt he had denied himself every adventure in life except diplomacy, which consumed him. He would have been happier living a little, I thought; with him, everything was so serious.
Thirty pages later, and we're being told he's basically the opposite of this:
My father's love of freedom was contagious, and I liked the way he loosened his shirt collar and tie when we headed off for a new place.
So first he never relaxes, then he relaxes with a predictable regularity. Apparently Kostova doesn't even care enough about her main characters to maintain any sort of consistency or logic (continuity, in film terms) in the way they're portrayed.
Luckily, I didn't care either, before too long. Because the central issue with The Historian is: I was only able to get so distracted by my nitpicking because the book wasn't holding my attention. At all.
A more tedious take on the Dracula legend you couldn't hope to use as a door-stop. The plot wanders glacially from library to archive to accidentally surviving collection of really dull letters (and I say this as someone whose beloved day job involves exactly these things), characters spend hundreds of pages failing to notice details like their striking resemblence to portraits of Dracula (pointed out to the reader ad nauseam) or the fact that key people shared the same surname (oh my goodness, could they be related? our narrator wonders, a good 80 pages or so after the reader spotted it immediately). Nothing happens in a mere sentence where three paragraphs can be ground out; possibly the goal is suspense, but the effect is boredom. The plot relies on endless chains of hilarious coincidence instead of people actually working things out. Above all, no-one involved appears to have the sense they were born with. No wonder poor Dracula waited so many fruitless centuries for people to find his tomb, even though he left them convenient maps in hundreds of books in libraries all over Europe.
Reader, I'm giving it to a charity shop. Although that feels a bit mean on whoever is unfortunate enough to buy it.
Dreary nonsense. Avoid.